I was at the sharp end of a poor customer communications experience recently, when my return flight to the UK at the end of an otherwise perfect holiday was delayed by 24 hours due to a serious engine fault.
It was an object lesson in abysmal customer liaison, which made me reflect on the basic tenets of good ‘crisis’* communication.
*For ‘crisis’, let’s insert ‘any negative situation’, because perhaps the very term ‘crisis communications’ means that companies only think about the need for this when something is happening that fits their definition of a ‘crisis’. Companies should recognise that even a relatively everyday operational blip can be a crisis from the customer’s perspective. That, after all, is the important point of view when it comes to communications.
When things go pear-shaped, your customers are actually pretty understanding. They appreciate that sometimes things go wrong, and while it’s frustrating, they are initially sympathetic. Until, that is, you abuse their sympathy and fail them with poor communications.
Here are my 20 top tips to ensure that doesn’t happen:
1. Communicate quickly and honestly what your prognosis of the problem is.
2. Let customers know what you’re doing to fix the problem. If you’re not sure how to fix it, tell them that you’re working on a plan, and update them regularly.
3. If you’re not sure you can fix it – or not within a reasonable timeframe – be honest.
4. Apologise sincerely for the inconvenience.
5. Take responsibility, and keep ownership of communication.
6. Be visible.
7. Don’t rely on third parties who don’t have a stake in the customer relationship.
8. Put in place frontline communications people who are trained to handle negative situations.
9. If the problem plays out over an extended time period, manage expectations as to how frequently you will update people and stick to a schedule – even if the update is that you’re still working on a solution.
10. If the problem affects a whole group of people, tell the whole group, simultaneously. Don’t drip-feed information on demand.
11. Defuse confrontational questions with honest responses. Don’t walk away.
12. If you’re repeatedly answering certain questions, take it as a cue that most people are silently asking themselves the same thing, and provide the information proactively.
13. When you have new information, be forthcoming and share it. Don’t wait to be asked.
14. If you give out incorrect information, correct it as soon as know it to be wrong.
15. Use all appropriate channels to communicate. Make sure that information being supplied is consistent across all those channels.
16. Don’t allow an information vacuum to arise. It will fill with rumours, all of them more negative than the initial problem.
17. Be clear, concise and consistent in the information you give out. Supply it in the languages of your key customers.
18. If your customers are contractually entitled to support while you fix things, put that support in place without having to be prompted.
19. The ‘crisis’ may be a source of irritation for you, but don’t transmit that to the customer. They bought your product/service, and they’re entitled to expect it to work. Respect the customer relationship.
20. If certain problems are relatively likely to occur in your business, have a documented and proactive communications protocol for the situation, and train your people to use it.
For more pointers on how to put a crisis communications plan in place for your business, click here to download our brief guide.