Sometimes a single image powerfully sums up an extraordinary situation in an uniquely memorable way - this week it was a picture of an ice-encrusted sign at the entrance to the tiny snowbound hamlet of Hell in Michigan state. With North America in the grip of its worst big freeze for decades, it was official: Hell has frozen over.

Extreme winter weather across North America has proved too much even for Arctic creatures with polar bears at Chicago zoo staying indoors while more than 200 million people struggle to stay warm.

Meanwhile, this side of the (thankfully, not frozen) pond, there have been more than 100 flood warnings, causing havoc and anxiety for many people whose homes and businesses are at risk of severe flooding.

In the midst of these crises, contact centre teams have played a pivotal role in getting help to people in need whether it be emergency services, roadside assistance, emergency repairs, or assistance with insurance claims.

Dedicated help lines are a vital source of not only practical help but also emotional support, regardless of whether the agents manning the phones are government employees, work for a commercial service provider, or are volunteers.

The heroic response of helpline operators and front line service providers throughout both the US big freeze and UK floods underlines that no matter how sophisticated we become, we all yearn for consistency, predictability, professionalism and a warm human response when we are seeking assistance in a stressful situation.

This week provided a sharp reminder that Mother Nature has the capacity to spring harsh surprises which leave forecasters red-faced and can render even the most sophisticated technology inadequate when pitted against the formidable force of nature, with aircrafts grounded, high speed trains halted and phone lines damaged by snow and ice.

Being there for customers in difficult times is vital and the merits of an integrated approach to customer service provision are particularly clear in extreme situations. There are positive examples of organisations that normally only man customer help lines in business hours, turning to Twitter and other channels to provide frequent updates to anxious customers, underlining the increasing importance of embracing so-called ‘social care’.

The importance of integrated mobile service apps cannot be ignored either when you picture customers forced out of their homes and camped out in makeshift accommodation with no easy access to fixed phone lines or PCs, leaving their mobile as their one critical link with the outside world.

Our sympathies go out to everyone caught up in the current weather crises but if one good thing comes out of it, perhaps it will force customer-facing organisations of all kinds to have more robust discussions on business continuity planning to ensure that they do not let customers down.

This should be accompanied by wider discussions about channel integration and resourcing, including looking at homeshoring and other options which can enable seamless customer service delivery even if contact centre staff cannot physically get to work themselves. 

We have evidence of CCA members who have used home-workers very effectively during system outages as well as weather extremes. Planning and preparing for a range of eventualities is critical and technology solutions have a part to play in this.

We had an intriguing glimpse this week into what the future might hold in terms of technology solutions as global technology brands showcased their wares at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

They ranged from wifi-enabled toothbrushes to wearable technology, including a ‘digital onesie’ for babies which monitors their temperature and breathing. The ‘Internet of Things’ was a major theme with everyday devices containing embedded microprocessor chips which provide digital intelligence.

Ironically, one of the biggest headlines from Las Vegas concerned a malfunctioning device invented in the 50s, the autocue. A Hollywood director walked off in the middle of a speech to unveil the world’s most advanced giant curved TV screen when his autocue failed.

It only goes to prove that technology may have many answers but when the chips are down, you need to rely on humans to rise to the challenge - rain, hail or shine.