The New York State Deferred Compensation Plan has had contingency plans in place for years. One such plan was established for strong winter snowstorms, a common occurrence in upstate New York, when Nationwide would assign representatives from its Columbus, Ohio, headquarters to help with call center inquiries.
The coronavirus has been far more enduring than a snowstorm.
Average daily call volume had been 960 calls for the two years prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Mr. Fischer wrote. However, the plan received more than 1,000 calls daily during 16 days in March, including some days in which the volume was 50% higher than normal, he added. On March 9, the plan received 1,610 calls, which represented the largest single-day number in 17 years.
"Call volume in March exceeded our planned capacity and, due to the nature of the calls, average talk time was longer than normal," Mr. Fischer said.
Acting on a recommendation by Sharon Lukacs, the plan's deputy director, Nationwide began assigning field staff to assist call-center staff effective March 30. Sixteen field representatives began taking three-hour daily shifts for the plan's help line, increasing the plan's call-taking ability by 45%, Mr. Fischer wrote. Account executives haven't resumed visits to employers, and they continue to help fielding phone calls. The plan's website also has posted contact information about the field representatives — name, photo, telephone number, email and counties they serve — so participants can discuss their accounts. "Our online services are working very well," Mr. Fischer wrote.
To make sure the flood of calls didn't cause frustrated and worried participants to wait for service, the plan instituted a call-back service on March 23. "The participants can hang up, go about their business and receive a call back from us when their place in line comes up," Mr. Fischer wrote."
During the first quarter, participants' phone calls were "somewhere between fear and panic over losses associated with massive daily declines in the broader stock market, combined with uncertainty in the labor market," Mr. Fischer wrote.
The representatives' responses ranged from "hand holding" to "talking people off the ledge" with a heavy emphasis on empathy, he added. Calls during the second quarter returned to more normal levels. "There are still plenty of calls, but it is down from earlier this year." Mr. Fischer wrote. "Some calls are about how to put money back that was withdrawn."
Because Nationwide representatives still aren't visiting employers for group meetings or one-on-one sessions with participants, the plan has been offering a series of webinars as well as a schedule for virtual and/or phone meetings so participants can discuss their accounts with the representatives. The virtual meetings also can accommodate presentations with small groups.
Although the initial rollout of webinars was planned before the coronavirus struck, it was viewed as "a supplement to the on-site and personal meetings" offered by Nationwide, Mr. Fischer said. Some were offered in February; but in March "the webinars were accelerated" and serve as the "primary method of distributing plan information."
The webinars continue to cover such topics as enrollment, asset allocation and pre-retirement planning on a weekly or biweekly basis.
The webinars "remain very successful, and we have also made an extra effort to involve the participating employers in letting participants know about them," Mr. Fischer wrote.
Surveying the changes made quickly by the plan and its record keeper, Mr. Fischer concluded: "Be prepared for anything and be flexible in how you deliver services."