13 customer support dos and don’ts when managing a crisis

Over the last few days we have had a bit of a crisis here at Planning Pod. We were upgrading our development software on our server (it’s the platform on which we build our project and business management app) and, needless to say, it didn’t go as planned and caused some bugs in our software.

I wanted to start out by apologizing again to our loyal and very heady customers for the inconvenience and to let them know we are addressing the issue with all our resources and are shooting to have these bugs fixed within the next 48 hours. We truly appreciate your patience and welcome any feedback you may have regarding our recent issue or anything else.

I also wanted to take this occasion to share with all small businesses the 13 key dos and don’ts when managing a crisis and how to handle your customer support when in the midst of the crisis.

1. Do pinpoint the issue as your first order of business.
Find the cause of the issue and start putting together a plan for how it will be fixed.

2. Don’t waste time trying to assess fault internally.
The milk has already been spilled, and now is not the time for a post-mortem or an exercise in fingerpointing. You need to focus on fixing the problem and communicating with your customers.

3. Do identify specific tasks and who in your organization will perform them.
Now is the time for everyone on your team to work as efficiently as possible, so identify one lead for fixing the issue and one for communicating with customers and the press etc. Even if your organization has a flat structure, your crisis management should run like a military operation with a pyramid-style chain-of-command.

4. Do come up with a reasonable estimate on when you can get the issue fixed.
This accomplishes two things. First, it gives your team a deadline for fixing the problem. Second, it will give your customers an idea of when the issue will be fixed.

5. Do proactively notify people when something is wrong (don’t be reactive).
Don’t wait to talk with your customers until you start getting masses of customer support emails and phone calls. Be proactive and let them know you have already identified that there is an issue and that you are addressing it right now.

6. Do communicate with your customers as soon as you have identified the problem(s) and have an ETA on when the issue will be resolved.
People hate being left in the dark or not knowing when a product or service that they paid good money for will be working again. So give them a bit of background on the issue and a general idea of when it will be resolved. And do it via email, social media (Twitter, Facebook), your Web site, your online support center and wherever else you regularly communicate with customers. This message should contain an apology and an appreciation for their patience while you address the issue.

7. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
It’s always tempting to say you will have an issue fixed by the end of the day or that once you make a fix it will completely solve the problem. But if you make a promise that you can’t end up keeping, your customers will be even more angry with you because you have now compounded the original issue. This is one of those cases where it’s better to underpromise and overdeliver.

8. Do give a general description of the issue.
People want to know generally the story behind what happened, so sum up in a sentence or two what the issue is. You don’t want to hide anything from your customers or even seem like you are hiding something from them.

9. Don’t go into technical specifics.
Many issues or problems often have a technical root cause behind them. Sharing this technical information with your entire audience may cause even more confusion, so refrain from going into elaborate technical details (although if a particular customer asks you for a more detailed explanation, you can provide that person with a more elaborate answer).

10. Don’t try to lay blame elsewhere.
People admire it when someone steps up and takes responsibility for a problem. It shows character and demonstrates that someone has taken charge of the situation and is addressing their concerns. On the flip site, people usually hate it when someone deflects the blame or tries to lay it on someone else’s doorstep. Just accept responsibility, don’t play the blame game and move forward.

11. Do reply to all customer support requests personally.
Even if you have corresponded with your customers in bulk and via online venues, you should still reply to each and every customer support request … even if it has to do with the issue you have already notified them about. Each and every customer is valuable and deserves your attention, and even if you can’t reply to each person right away, you should send each one a customized reply as soon as you are able.

12. Do send out an email to your customers when the issue is fixed.
You don’t want customers to keep wondering if the issue has been fixed or not, so keep them fully appraised if the situation changes, if you have arrived at a solution and/or if you have fixed the problem. This communication should again contain an apology, an appreciation for their patience and understanding, and a heartfelt “thank you” for being a loyal customer.

13. Do a “lessons learned” regroup after all the issues are fixed.
Only after everything is addressed and fixed should you revisit the issue, determine what caused it and come up with a game plan for avoiding such a scenario in the future.

One thing to remember during all this is that we are all human and we all make honest mistakes. Most people realize this, and although they may be frustrated and annoyed (and understandably so), if you keep them in the loop and communicate that you are doing all you can to fix the problem, most of them will ultimately understand as long as you fix the issue in a timely fashion.

Here are a few other resources for addressing issues, admitting to mistakes and speaking with angry customers: