I’ve always hated paying for travel insurance. Paying for something that you hope you never have to use seems counter-intuitive and wasteful. But actually, I only hated paying for insurance until that one time that I fell down a ski hill and needed to go to the hospital in a foreign country. And then I was incredibly relieved that I had a plan in place and was prepared for the worst. My leg was still broken, but at least I wasn’t left with a huge medical bill on top of it.
Creating a crisis plan for your company is similar to insurance. You hope you never need to use it, and putting it together seems like a hassle you don’t need. Surely there are other things to spend your valuable time on (like trying to prevent the crisis in the first place!)
But the unfortunate truth is that Shit Happens. No matter how thorough your QA is, no matter how careful your marketing team is, how consistent your customer service is — catastrophe can strike at any time. Len Markidan wraps it up succinctly on the Groove blog:
“You never want bad things to happen to your business, but the reality is that nobody is immune to catastrophe.”
A crisis can be anything that causes disruption to a lot of customers, or a serious threat to your company’s well being. It might be technical, or it might be reputation related. For example, common crises include:
The important thing to remember is that you can not prevent every crisis — often it’s out of your hands. Instead of trying to control everything, focus on what you can do: respond in a confident, well-prepared way that keeps your customers' trust, even when things have gone wrong.
If you’re reading this guide, you probably already agree that a crisis plan is important. Perhaps you’ve already had an incident that didn’t go so well and are looking to do better on the next one. Regardless of how well you’ve planned in the past, this guide will make sure you leave no stone unturned the next time something goes wrong. At the end of reading this guide, you’ll be better equipped than ever to communicate with your customers, collaborate internally and weather the storm of any serious crisis.
When things go wrong, really wrong, the most important goal is to contain the damage. Crises tend to cause customers to leave, negative reviews to spread and can severely damage your company’s reputation. If handled properly, a crisis might even win you new fans who are impressed with your response.
A great crisis communication plan accomplishes 5 things:
In this guide, we’ll go over the different points of a crisis (identifying a crisis, acting during the incident and the post-mortem) and what you need to prepare to deal with each stage effectively. We’ll also break down examples of great real-life crisis management situations and one that didn’t go as well as it could have.
You can’t plan when a crisis strikes, so it’s important to always be ready to deal with one. When a crisis is brewing, acting quickly can be your best defense.
There are several ways that you can monitor your environment to identify a crisis. If you work in technology, development teams can use a variety of plug and play monitoring systems to identify spikes in response times, complete outages and increasing error rates, such as:
These tools automatically check your system and alert the right teams when something seems off. This helps your company be the first to know if your system isn’t working properly and start communicating with customers proactively rather than scrambling to keep up.
Besides monitoring your own system performance, there are a few other things to keep an eye on to get a jump on a new crisis. For example:
There’s an old saying in public relations: “control the narrative, control the world.” If you discover a crisis before the customers do, you can be more proactive in shaping the messaging. For PR issues, and security breaches this is critical because getting the right information out early will drastically improve the public response to the issue. For technical issues, being ahead of customers means that your engineering team has more time to resolve the issue without affecting customers.
Being ahead of the game is also more efficient for customer support. If you post publicly that you’re working on an issue, customers will see that you’re working on it and not need to submit a support ticket or start a chat to find out more. Customers are instantly put at ease when they know you’re on top of the issue. When writing into customer support it’s much more comforting for a customer to be told that the company already knows about the issue, and it’s on the way to being fixed. When a customer has to go through the troubleshooting stages about a mystery, it’s not only a big hassle but it also diminishes their faith in your ability to resolve the issue quickly.
Once you’ve identified a potential crisis looming, it’s time to start notifying everyone who needs to know. For each type of crisis, the most urgent person to alert will change. However, the first points of escalation should almost always be the person who will fix the issue and the person who will craft the public messaging.
Technical escalations are simple if you work in a small office and the issue occurs during business hours. You can just yell at the next desk over. It gets more complicated if the team is bigger, the right person doesn’t sit next to you, or if they are asleep. In this case, setting up escalation tools like PagerDuty or OpsGenie will help make sure that the right person is notified. If you don’t want to use these tools, create a copy of a phone tree with cell phone numbers for everyone who should be called, in the order they should be called in.
Depending on your company structure and the type of issue, it will depend on who needs to be involved in communicating the issue externally. Decide who needs to be contacted for each type of issue and include that in your crisis communication plan. Some people that you might want to consider including in your escalation path is the:
Once you’ve got everything rolling along on the fix and the customer communication it’s time to circulate the information more widely. It’s important that everyone in the company understand at least as much as customers do because they might get asked questions about it. For example, salespeople need to know about downtime before they jump on an upcoming live demo. Marketing needs to know about issues so they can pause upcoming email newsletters.
At this point, it might make sense to set up a way for everyone in the company to work together and coordinate (more on that later). LiveAgent and Groove both suggest setting up a Slack channel dedicated to the specific crisis for coordination, but some teams might use an email thread or set up a conference room in the office for everyone to be together.
Crises are often chaotic. Without having clear accountability around who does what, things can easily drop through the cracks — which is the last thing you want. Part of your crisis preparedness plan should definitely include a list of responsibilities that need to be taken care of. When a crisis arises, start by assigning roles out to everyone who is available.
The most important tasks to get covered are:
For those who aren’t directly given a responsibility during the crisis, they might support others in their roles or just carry on with the day to day work. A crisis shouldn’t derail your entire company — customers still need to be responded to.