The Art of Communicating a Crisis with Your Customers


Imagine the scenario where you’ve fully prepared for a webinar, your listeners have allocated free time to come and view your presentation for the next 45 minutes, and you’re just about to get started.

Then you get a phone call, and it’s a notification to say that a server has gone down and then you realize the service you provide isn’t there anymore; it’s gone.

How do you go about communicating this properly to your customers? How do you prevent them from getting angry?

These scenarios always come at the worst time. It’s when you’re doing a webinar, out of the office or having time off, and it’s not uncommon for it to happen in the middle of the night.

Communicating with Customers

How you deal with a crisis like this can be broken into three stages:

  • Planning and preparation of dealing with the storm.
  • Communicating throughout and keeping customers informed.
  • Learning from failure; study everything that’s gone on, analyzing to tweak and perfect for the future.

Robin Geall and Robert Rawlins, founders of Sorry™, joined us for a webinar to talk about just this. You can watch the webinar here, or read on for a run down of what they talked about.

The planning starts with the people in the organization

Planning for a crisis is all about working out where you might find a problem.

You can start by considering:

  • Who should be looking at the technical side of things?
  • Who’s going to be responsible for keeping people informed during a crisis?

Division of these roles is really important. If you have assigned responsibility ahead of time, it will be easier for everyone to know what they need to do in the event of a crisis.

Planning doesn’t have to be complicated. It could be as simple as keeping a Google Doc with people’s contact details and job roles in.

The value of doing this in advance really shines through once you start talking to customers, which is why it’s really important you have the right people doing the right thing.

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You don’t want your engineers talking to your customers because there’s going to be such a difference in the language they’re using, and this can add to the frustration and confusion.

Split your crisis team up into three:

Communication between teams is such a high priority during a crisis that you can’t rely on email. Consider using the phone, or even meet in person at a prearranged meeting place.

Once you have the right people in place, the next thing you need is the communication strategy that allows you to tackle anything coming your way.

Communicating throughout and getting people in the know

The reason many companies don’t tackle a problem straight away is down to two things:

1. They’re not properly prepared to respond to the crisis.

For instance, a company’s website could go down, and they simply don’t know it has happened until a customer comes to them and tells them.

2. They are afraid in being open and honest about a crisis

There’s a slight fear factor around being transparent. The company feels vulnerable that they have a problem and they don’t know what it is yet.

Robin and Robert emphasize that getting the word out early is more important than having all the details on technical issues. Prioritise getting the word out as soon as you find out something is affecting your customers.

Customers are much more forgiving if you are upfront with them and use the right kind of language, and they hold much more empathy for you if you’re being open and honest. Your customers know things go wrong sometimes, and they understand that you’ll do the best you can to fix it.

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It’s when you try and hide or ignore the problem, that’s when you irritate customers.

Putting out the right message

Don’t feel you have to put out Facebook or Twitter messages every 15 minutes if your site will be down all day.

It’s hard to know how long your service will be down, it’s okay to lean to the side of caution and overestimate. Fixing it quicker will only please your customers. It’s not knowing if it’s going to be fixed in five minutes or an hour, all of that builds pressure and frustrates the customer.

But don’t ever just say “We’ve fixed it.”

Announce that you think you’ve solved the issue, but you’ll be monitoring it for the next thirty minutes or more.

Learning from failure and preventing recurrences

Sorry™’s tagline is “turning outages into opportunities”, and it’s apt. As a business you spend huge amounts of effort building trust with your customers.  Once you have an outage or failure in your service, that’s when you’re spending those “trust bucks” with those customers. It’s so important you use this opportunity to try and rebuild that trust afterwards.

Winning back their trust won’t be an all uphill battle because once you have weathered the storm, your customers will have a higher level of respect for you and they’ll really appreciate your services.

But you start this by looking inwardly at your own failures.

First look at ways to better your service. Go back to your tech team and work with them to find a way to improve in future. There’s never a root cause, it’s always minor or a small chain of events that bring your network down.

If your server went down, ask why there wasn’t a backup? Or if hardware goes wrong, why was it on a four-hour delivery wait?

Take the time to scrutinize everything, not just the thing that went wrong.

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Make tiny tweaks to everything like the way you monitor for a crisis. You could change your hardware a little bit, or change the way you communicate. Make sure that every time an outage happens, you focus on trying to better your service, because these tiny elements are the issues that come back every time.

When it comes to your customers, briefly recap what went wrong, and also brief them on the changes you’re going to make in the future. Depending on your audience you might want to write it in a language they can understand, or you could even do a detailed technological breakdown.

Remember to invite the opportunity for customer to question what went wrong, because this is where you can rebuild the precious trust and patience they gave you while you were handling the crisis.

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