Wednesday, July 28, 2010

How will you communicate with your customers in a crisis?

A denial-of-service attack at an online service I use reminded me of how important it is to have -- and follow -- a plan for communicating with customers during a crisis.

In this particular situation, the Web site providing the service was down for hours. With no explanation from the company about what was going on, frustrated customers like me could only make assumptions about the reason for the outage and when service would be restored. The next day -- a full 24 hours later -- the vendor sent an e-mail explaining the situation. The message noted that during the crisis, the company was posting updates to its Twitter account. Oh, so going forward, I can learn what's going on through your Twitter account? And that account name is . . .? Whoops -- you didn't include it!

It's obvious to me -- and by now, to this company, I hope -- that sending this "Yikes! We've been attacked!" message would have been more helpful to puzzled customers while the company was working to fix the problem. It doesn't need to be long -- two or three sentences is enough -- put it does need to be sent. And that message should inform us that we can stay current on the status of the problem by going to the company's Twitter page -- and giving us that complete, clickable URL.

It's likely that customers weren't informed about the cause of the problem until after the fact because the company wasn't prepared for a crisis. Not smart. Regardless of the size of your company, you're probably going to have a crisis of some sort at some point -- and you're going to have to communicate about it. Even sole practitioners are at risk -- what if you were in an accident and incapacitated or had a death in the family and had to leave town (and your projects) quickly? On the other hand, some companies are well-prepared to deal with the media when there's a crisis, but their crisis communications plan overlooks one of their most important audiences -- their customers. They focus on damage control with the press, assuming that it's okay for their clients to learn about it from the news. It's not.

Take the time to write down the procedures you need to follow during a crisis -- and make sure everyone involved in executing those steps has a copy of the plan. Imagine the various problems that could occur, and prepare accordingly. In the situation I've described here with my vendor, there was no need to communicate with the press, but what if the outage had been caused by an angry employee who not only sabotaged the company's operation but took employees hostage and was threatening violence, too? You'll want the police involved and you'll have no choice but to communicate with the press, as well. Do you know today how you would handle that? And does everyone else in the company?

You can find lots of good information about crisis communication planning on the Web. There are also several helpful books available, including Crisis Leadership Now and Keeping the Wolves at Bay. The size and depth of your plan and the level of detailed involved will depend on the nature of your business, potential problems, the size of your company, and so on. You might be able to write it yourself using common sense and logic. However you do it, just do it. And then run your business in a way that makes sure you'll never need it. Don't we all wish BP had done that?

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