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Communicating with Customers During an IT Incident

IT incident

Solutions Review’s Contributed Content Series is a collection of contributed articles written by thought leaders in enterprise software categories. JJ Tang of Rootly takes us to Customer Support school– illustrating the importance of communication during an IT incident.

We’ve all seen it: a company experiencing a major IT incident (like an outage) and going radio silent, leaving their customers to wonder, “Are they doing something about this?!” If you’ve ever been on the inside of something like this, you know the answer is most likely yes – there are people working hard to put out the fire as quickly as possible. But when it comes to incidents, perception is reality for customers.

It’s important to demonstrate visible progress to people outside of the incident, from the time you become aware of the problem until it is fully resolved. What you say is important, and where you say it makes a huge difference. As a product manager for Instacart, I was involved in incident management communications on a regular basis (think: site outages during the pandemic, when everyone was ordering groceries online). Here’s what I learned through that experience, and in my current role helping companies manage incidents daily.

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Communicating with Customers During an IT Incident

Your Status Page is Your Source of Truth for Customers When Incidents Happen

If you don’t have a customer-facing status page, you’re missing out on one of the easiest and most effective ways to keep your customers updated during incidents. A user-friendly and consistently updated status page removes a ton of burden from your customer support team and customers by providing a source of truth for problems that might be impacting their experience with your product.

Updates on your status page should be brief but frequent during an incident. Consider setting a timer to automatically remind you to update it every 30 minutes—even if the update is just “We’re continuing to investigate the problem.” Stale status pages for ongoing issues leave customers to wonder if there’s been any progress, or if the team has simply forgotten to update the page.

When writing status updates—or any customer-facing communication for that matter— remember to focus your message on the impact of the issue to your customers, rather than technical details that might confuse them.

For example:

Instead of: Our CDN is experiencing elevated 5xx rates.
Say: Some users are experiencing issues loading images and other content on our website and mobile app. We’ve identified the cause as an issue with our Content Delivery Network and we’re working on a fix.

Social Media is Where You Demonstrate Your Responsiveness to Impacted Customers

Using social media for incident communication comes with its own set of risks and rewards. It can be a great place to acknowledge the issue, amplify your messages from your owned communication channels (e.g. your status page), and to engage with your customers directly during an incident. It can also draw unwanted attention and attract trolls.

If customers are reaching out to you via social media already, you should handle these messages reactively by responding and redirecting the conversations to your support team as needed. But what about using social media proactively in an incident? In other words, broadly tweeting or posting that an incident is taking place, instead of replying to customers on a 1:1 basis.

If you choose to use social media like X/Twitter proactively during an incident, you should know what you’re getting yourself into. Because of this channel’s wide reach, you should only use it proactively for incidents that are also widely scoped to most or all of your customers. Consider setting a tripwire for how many inbound messages you need to receive before you move from a reactive 1:1 strategy to posting more broadly.

If you do choose to post, be prepared to receive an influx of responses. Your social media team should have clear guidance on how and when to respond to customers during an incident. Depending on the size of your user base and social media following, you may even want to consider having a separate account dedicated to customer support to keep these conversations contained so you can focus your main account on building awareness for your brand.

Using social media to increase the reach of your customer-facing messaging, and to direct customers to the best place to continue to receive updates is a good way to demonstrate that you’re being communicative during an incident. However, keep in mind that many of your users may not be on social media at all, so it shouldn’t be your primary channel for communication.

Customer Emails are Useful to Formally Acknowledge High/Critical Severity Issues

There are times when you should absolutely email your customers about incidents. In most cases, your status page should be your go-to place to keep your customers informed on incidents that affect your product. But if an incident is of critical severity and goes on for a long time (an hour or more) and/or requires action from your customers, you should directly contact your customers to address the situation. Email is typically the most reliable way to do this.

However, how you deliver the news is critical. Here’s how to write an incident email that doesn’t make a bad situation even worse.

  • Cut to the Chase. What is the most important thing the customers reading your email need to know? It’s likely an action they need to take, or information about how an ongoing incident is impacting them as a user. Whatever it is, put it as close to the beginning of your message as possible.
  • Remove the Fluff. Think of every word you write as time you are asking your customers to give you (because that’s what it is). Remove unnecessary information that distracts from your main point or doesn’t bring them value.
  • Put Yourself in the Customer’s Shoes. When writing and reviewing your email, think like a customer. What questions would you have? Where might you get confused or frustrated? If you’re telling them they should do something, are you also providing clear instructions on how to do it? You might be tempted to overdo it when it comes to showing empathy in your communication. There’s a difference between recognizing the impact of an issue and assuming or projecting emotions onto people.

Here’s an example of how to strike the right balance:

Instead of: We know you are deeply upset about this issue and we’re sincerely sorry to have let you down.
Say: We take downtime extremely seriously and we apologize for any negative impact this has had on you as a customer.

  • Set Clear Expectations. By the end of your email, your customers should know exactly what to expect next. Setting a clear expectation around what will happen next and following through with it (that part is really important, so don’t over promise) demonstrates you have control of the situation and builds trust with your customers.
  • Anticipate Responses. When sending customer emails, make sure you have a plan in place for how you’ll handle replies. If you’re not equipped to handle a large influx of replies, you may want to send a non-transactional email that doesn’t allow for direct replies. If that’s the case, the previous section on setting clear expectations is even more important.

Final Thoughts

Whatever your medium, what matters most is that you are communicating with clarity and confidence, and with your customers’ needs top of mind. Every company has incidents – how and where you respond can make a big difference when it comes to earning and keeping customers’ trust.

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