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The Crisis Communication Handbook for Customer Service

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Dealing with a technical crisis can be a major support headache. Here’s what to do when things go wrong.

There’s a cliche about health insurance, especially here in the US, that it’s something you absolutely need, but hope to never use.

Crisis communication plans are no different. They serve as your company’s handbook for what your team will do if “things go all catawampus,” as my first boss used to say.

You never want bad things to happen to your business, but the reality is that nobody is immune to catastrophe. Any business, on any given day, could be forced to deal with:

The list goes on, and varies depending on your specific business.

There’s no way around it, any crisis is going to be a massive headache for your team.

But the difference between a massive headache and a disaster that leaves your business limping often comes down to preparation.

From a customer service standpoint, crisis communication planning is a critical part of being prepared to deal with crises that directly involve your customers: server issues, security breaches, or anything else that causes a significant issue on the user experience front.

Below, you’ll find a guide to creating a crisis management plan that your customer support team can implement when things go wrong.

The Most Important Word In Any Crisis

There’s one single word that’s absolutely necessary for your entire team to use during a crisis.

That word is “sorry.”

Even if the crisis isn’t your fault.

Apologies aren’t about taking blame for the crisis. Apologies are about empathy, about showing that you understand how the customer feels, and about feeling genuinely sorry that they feel that way, regardless of who caused it.

Besides, even if the crisis isn’t your fault – maybe a third-party vendor is having an outage, and your product is a victim – as far as your customers are concerned, it’s your product that’s down, making it your fault.

Beverly Engel, author of The Power of Apology, explains why apologies can be so powerful in crisis interactions:

  • A person who has been harmed feels emotional healing when he is acknowledged by the wrongdoer.
  • When we receive an apology, we no longer perceive the wrongdoer as a personal threat.
  • Apology helps us to move past our anger and prevents us from being stuck in the past.
  • Apology opens the door to forgiveness by allowing us to have empathy for the wrongdoer.

Beverly Engel

In a world where companies love to play the blame game to protect themselves, a simple apology can go a long way.

Your Crisis Communication Plan Document

Your company’s crisis communication plan should be a document that every appropriate employee on your team can access at a moment’s notice.

At Groove, it’s a Google Doc that any of us can find by simply typing “crisis” into a search.

It should not be in the hands of only a couple of people, and it should not be hard to find.

The document should include guidelines for:

Internal Company Communications

Crises don’t really care what time it is, and they don’t care if half of your team is asleep.

That’s why it’s so important that your crisis communication plan includes internal communication, too.

If a crisis happens during “off” hours, but the only contact info you have for your teammates is their company email and office phone number, you’re going to feel very, very alone.

At the very top of the document, put personal contact info for your team members, where they can be reached at any time:

Beyond simply getting and touch and notifying your teammates about the crisis, have a plan in place for how you’re going to communicate during the crisis.

For us, that means we’ll convene in a dedicated Slack room. For your business, that might mean a physical space (though I’d recommend having a “virtual” meeting spot as well, since there’s no guarantee that your team will be in one place when the crisis occurs).

Email Updates

This part of your document should let the employee know where and how they can send emails to all active customers, along with reminders on how, and how often, to send updates.

If your crisis impacts your customer’s usage of your product, then don’t wait to send an email update.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t have all of the information about what’s going on: apologize right away, explain that there’s an issue, and let the customers know that you’re working on getting to the root of it.

Until the crisis is over, continue to send email updates, no fewer than one per hour, even if the update is simply to say that you’re still working on it. In this confusing, frustrating and possibly scary time for your customers, err on the side of overcommunication; it’ll comfort your customers and ensure them that you’re taking the issue seriously.

Should you include pre-written templates in your crisis communication plan?

Some companies include email and blog post templates in their crisis communication plans. I’d recommend that you don’t.

Why?

Because of the sensitive nature of crises, and because of the fast-paced way that you’ll need to handle them, there are ample opportunities for your team to accidentally miss something and have your template backfire.

When Templates Attack When Templates Attack

Skip the templates, and stick to writing short, heartfelt messages when you’re in crisis mode. In these situations, your customers will excuse typos, but they won’t excuse insincerity.

Blog Updates

The document should also contain instructions for accessing and posting to your company’s blog.

When they find that they can’t access their accounts, this is one of the first places your customers will go to figure out what’s going on.

Rather than continuously adding new posts, make things easy for your customers by creating a single post, and adding timestamped updates to it as the day goes on.

Here’s an example from a MailChimp outage:

Update this post as often as you send email updates; again, no fewer than one per hour.

Social Channels

You know which social channels your customers interact with you on. Make sure that you’re posting updates there, too.

Designate an employee to respond to every Twitter mention that comes in with an apology and any information you can provide.

Customer Support

We’re fans of all-hands support at all times.

But if there’s ever a time when it’s necessary to have your entire team focused on customer communication, it’s during a crisis.

If you can, assign every employee that’s not actively working on the technical side of the crisis to answer customer support emails.

Your document should include information on where to access your help desk, along with any general information that your customer service team thinks other employees should know when they’re doing support.

Post-Crisis Communication

During a crisis, your updates will be fast, and likely short. That’s the nature of a crisis: things move fast, and you do your best to keep up.

But once the crisis is resolved, it’s time to dive deep.

Within 24 hours of resolution, send a final update. This one should be a lot more comprehensive, including:

Take a look at this textbook post-crisis update example from the team at Slack:

(Click on the image to read the whole thing.)

Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst

In an ideal world, your crisis communication plan will remain unused forever, collecting dust.

In reality, you’ll likely need it at some point. And when that time comes, you’ll be very glad that you took the time to put together a crisis playbook for your team.

Nobody wants a crisis to happen to them, but with the right preparation, you can be ready to meet it head-on and even strengthen your relationship with your customers through your extraordinary response.

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About the Author

Len Markidan heads up marketing at Groove. He’s focused on helping startups and small businesses build better relationships with their customers.

Read his latest posts or follow him on Twitter

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