Incidents are unavoidable when running a business. When an incident does inevitably occur, communication is critical while your teams are working to minimize the impact and expedite a solution.
For technical resolvers, the first steps during an incident are to look for any leads that point to the source of the issue. Customer service and communications teams, however, must prioritize establishing effective communication with impacted users. Both teams have the right frame of mind, they need to be aligned. This becomes more complicated when such an incident is an outage.
Best Practices for Communicating with Customers During an Outage
Let’s explore some strategies for communicating effectively with your customers both during and after an outage.
Remain Calm and Collected
Unfortunately, the occasional outage is unpredictable and unavoidable. In such situations, tensions can run high, and teams can feel pressure to fix the problem as soon as possible. Because of the high stakes and pressure, it’s easy to spiral into panic or frustration. However, when you have a well-prepared incident management strategy, you and your teams can calmly handle any incident of any magnitude, maintaining an image of stability and building trust with your customers.
The first step in ensuring your teams can remain calm and collected is to develop an incident response team, comprised of managers, team leaders, subject experts, and a communications manager. The communications manager plays an important role here, as they help relevant parties stay informed about the incident from the start of the outage until its resolution. The communications manager will also be in charge of informing key stakeholders about the incident’s impact and the projected time for resolution.
In addition to communicating in-house, your communications manager will help your customers know that you’re aware of the issue at hand, have dedicated resources to resolving the issue, and that you’re working to resolve it swiftly. Communications managers can help ensure that you appear calm and collected in your interactions with affected customers, ensuring not to minimize or downplay the severity of the outage while dealing with affected customers. No one likes to be told that their source of stress or inconvenience is insignificant.
Stay in Touch
Communication can be tricky during an outage, especially if the outage is impacting the channels that you and your teams normally use to communicate with customers.
There are several tools that you can use to reach customers depending on the size and severity of the outage. For up-to-the-minute information about incident resolution, a tool like Atlassian Statuspage can be useful. Teams can use Atlassian Statuspage to provide automatic up-to-date, highly detailed updates about how the resolution process is going, providing an easy method of reaching out to concerned customers and keeping them in the loop.
For acknowledging an incident on a wider scale, and for reaching a wider market, your organization can use outlets like social media for general announcements about the outage. Social media is also a great place to link to the Statuspage, where interested/impacted customers can access more detailed information, and for addressing individual customers and customer questions who might use social media as a tool for instant, active communication.
Share What You Can
It’s not always possible to give customers as much detail as they want about an outage, but it’s a good idea to provide high-level information about what went wrong, how the issue is being corrected, and how long the fix might take to implement.
When planning your incident response strategy, you should determine what can be shared and in what kinds of scenarios — a complete system outage, an application or feature outage, and so on — you would need to share that information. There are several approaches to determining what can be shared. Setting up templates for outage communication is an excellent place to start. The last thing you want to deal with during a power outage is having to find the correct words to address the problem, which can be time-consuming and distracting. Templates can help to make it easier — and faster — to communicate with customers. Additionally, it’s extremely helpful to have a set of agreed-upon terminology to use in case of follow-up issues during an outage, so that all team members directly engaging with customers respond in the same way.
Sharing sufficient information also requires categorizing the customers as B2B or B2C during the planning sessions. Categorizing customers in this way can help you determine what level of detail each customer will need about the causes, repairs, and consequences (delays, configurations, and so on) of the outage. In some cases, the root cause analysis (RCA) is sufficient, whereas other clients need more detailed information.
For example, a B2B customer might require a more detailed report on the outage than a B2C customer. It may be sufficient to state a general cause such as “loss of backend functionality caused the website to go down” to a B2C client. A B2B customer might want a more technical explanation that identifies the specific services or equipment that failed, along with a plan to help prevent the problem from happening again.
Transparency is crucial, but it’s also critical not to reveal any proprietary information or make promises that your organization can’t keep. Therefore, when sharing outage information, ensure to keep details on the design and architecture generic. Generally, avoid going into the nitty-gritty details of the outage with all categories of customers, and also bear in mind what platform you’re sharing the information through. An email to the affected customers can be more detailed than, for example, a social media post addressing the outage.
Customers want to know that their concerns are being addressed and that their happiness is a priority for your business. While you may not be able to ease all your customers’ concerns, especially if the problem isn’t yet resolved, your teams can purposefully share details that are relevant to their concerns to put them at ease.
There are two times when it’s important to provide customers with updates: during an outage, and afterward.
During an Outage
Don’t leave your customers hanging with just a single message, or worse, radio silence.
If you’re only sending clients one message warning them of the outage and then failing to provide any further updates, it can appear unprofessional and damage customer trust. Instead, provide frequent updates as to the status of the situation — even if it’s just a simple check-in message that doesn’t offer new information.
The number of check-ins, as well as who in the impacted organization receives them and through what channels, is determined by the size of the customer’s organization and your team’s preparedness and early progress at the time of the outage. In certain circumstances, a generic email message or frequent social media posts might be enough to keep customers informed, while in others, you may need to contact the customers directly. These exchanges help reassure your customers that your teams care about them and are working diligently to resolve the problem.
Follow Up Post-Outage
Communicate with key impacted customers about the cause of the incident and explain the issue — along with steps being taken to make sure it doesn’t happen again. This step relies heavily on having sufficient incident retrospective practices, which you’ll want to learn more about as you develop your incident response plan.
When interacting with affected customers, empathize with them about the inconvenience or damage that the outage causes them. An open acknowledgment of the difficulty caused may go a long way. Try to see the problem from their point of view and recognize the difficulties the outage causes them, their organization, and customers. It’s crucial not to minimize or dismiss the negative impact that the outage may be having on their business.
However, it’s best to avoid an unnecessarily apologetic tone or directing blame towards a team, individual, or other specific entity. Instead, reassure customers of their value and importance to your business, and that a team is working to resolve the issue.
When empathizing and reassuring customers of the incident response, be very careful about making promises to customers — especially about timelines for fixes. Avoid superfluous language and be extremely conservative when projecting when the outage will be corrected or when the fix will be implemented, and ideally avoid making guarantees altogether.
Incidents like outages are unavoidable and often unpredictable. Because of these uncertainties, it’s critical to have an incident response team ready to respond when an incident occurs.
Key components of effective communication during an outage include remaining calm in both your internal and external communications, keeping an open line of communication during the incident, sharing relevant and appropriate information about its cause and solution, providing consistent updates, and following up with your customers about how the incident was resolved. The other vital component is to provide information about how such an incident will be prevented in the future.
Establishing a strong incident response plan is essential but managing each component on your own is challenging. Using a service reliability platform like xMatters strengthens your business and incident response strategy by automating incident resolution, proving in-depth analytics, and encouraging cross-enterprise collaboration.