crisis communications

Communicating with Customers in a Crisis

A crisis can come in many forms. From a pandemic, to a PR nightmare, to a product outage, every business will experience a crisis at some point. The way you communicate with your customers during the crisis can make or break your business. When emotions and stakes are high, you need to be able to say the right thing at the right time. 

The good news? 

Handling the crisis effectively can actually grow your business. Customers will trust that you do the right thing—even in times of crisis. In PwC’s 2019 study on crisis management, 42% of businesses surveyed said they were “in a better place” post-crisis. Some of these businesses even reported revenue growth attributed directly to their management of the crisis. 

What matters most to customers during times of crisis? How can your business prepare now to be ready to face new critical challenges in the future? Read on and learn how you can communicate effectively with your customers during a crisis. 

Align your crisis team internally

The first step to communicating with customers is to know what you want to say. Get all of the stakeholders on the same page so your company can present a united front. Customers rate consistency is one of the most important aspects of a good experience—even above speed. 

Your ability to work as a team has a direct impact on the outcome of the crisis. Of the companies that identified as being better off after a crisis, 93% confirmed that they acted as a team in response to the crisis. For companies that ended up in a worse situation post-crisis, only 39% said they acted as a team. 

Documenting and practicing the following three steps will put you in a good place when the next crisis hits. 

  1. Create a Slack channel or team chat for leaders who need to be up-to-date on the crisis. This includes all customer-facing departments, as well as any other involved teams. 
  2. Gather facts. Three-quarters of businesses who report being in a better place after their crisis strongly agree on the importance of accurate fact gathering during the crisis. For example: What is the extent of the crisis? How many people are impacted? 
  3. Appoint a point person. While many may be involved in the crisis response, one person needs to be the accountable point of contact. They will coordinate across departments to ensure that everything moves smoothly, and make any final decisions needed. 

Refine your messaging

Once you know what you’re going to say, it’s time to decide how to say it. For many businesses (38% of those surveyed), communicating with external stakeholders is a top vulnerability. It’s hard to know how customers will respond to any messaging. While you want to be transparent, it’s not always feasible to expose everything to customers. You want to be empathetic, but it’s not always wise to accept blame for everything. Finding the perfect messaging to reassure and inform your customers while also building trust can be difficult. 

  1. Be Specific. We’ve all heard the phrase “Sorry for any inconvenience.” It’s vague, unhelpful, and disingenuous. To avoid this common cliched phrase, be specific in your messaging. Acknowledge what’s wrong, how it impacts your customers, and what you are going to change. It’s only possible to be specific if you’ve taken the time to think through your response. 
  2. Be Accountable. If the crisis was your fault, own it. If a third party caused the crisis, you still need to own it. You chose to rely on your  vendors to provide service for your customers, so don’t throw them under the bus. It’s not a good look for anyone. 
  3. Set Expectations. What should customers expect to happen next? Where should they look for updates? Do they need to take any action themselves? Don’t leave your customers uncertain about the future. Even if you don’t have all the answers now, make sure to provide direction and set expectations.
  4. Exhibit Empathy. By recognizing how your customers feel(anxious, upset, etc.) and directly acknowledging their feelings, you can build trust. Instead of a cold, unfeeling statement, consider including a statement of empathy in your communication strategies. 

“One of the things that people are looking for is ratification of their feeling of emotional fragility. And when I look at the best statements, whether it’s from CEOs or from university presidents or others, one of the things that I find that is most helpful is a statement that begins with an acknowledgment of people’s anxieties, fears, or uncertainty and feelings of vulnerability. When they do that first, the communication tends to work reasonably well.”

Helio Fred Garcia, Professor of Crisis Management at NYU and Columbia University

Communicate across channels

One-quarter of organizations believe they did not communicate effectively during their most serious crisis. A crucial part of effective communication is making sure you’re covering the right channels. 

Create a list of all the places you need to update during a crisis, along with action owners. Here are a few things to remember: 

  • Status page: A status page is a great place to keep updates and gather all relevant information. Other channels can refer customers back to the status page for more thorough updates. 
Xbox has a status page to alert customers to downtime and outages.
  • Outbound Emails: Depending on the scope and impact of the crisis, you may want to send an email to your entire customer base, or the subset of customers impacted. This is a good place to compose a thoughtful, empathetic message from your CEO. 
Let's Make Art sends an email about an issue with billing.
  • Social Media: 55% of Americans get their news from social media, so you can expect some of your customers to check your Twitter or Facebook feed for news before contacting you. Providing public updates can help reassure your customers and prevent them from contacting you to ask for your response. 
Starbucks apology tweet
  • Respond to inbound questions: Keep a close eye on your help desk inbox for any questions related to the crisis. Respond quickly, tag tickets so you can follow up later, and refer customers to your status page for consistent updates. 

Update each channel as needed. While you might not want to send out emails to your customers every hour, you do want to make sure your status page is up-to-date. Social media updates should go out every hour or when you have more information to share. 

Continue to communicate after the crisis ends

Once everything is back to normal, take time to follow up with customers. Share anything you’ve learned, and what you’ll change to prevent a similar situation from occurring in the future. For example, GitLab’s huge outage in January 2017 went viral because of their great postmortem and ongoing communication about the issue. In 2018, they were ranked America’s 4th fastest growing software company. 

gitLab postmortem of database outage

You can also consider offering discounts and refunds after the crisis has been resolved. A free month or a discount code goes a long way to show appreciation for your customers’ patience and understanding. However, be mindful to make the offer after you’ve fixed things—customers will only appreciate the gesture if their issues have been resolved.  

Create your crisis management plan

The way you communicate through a crisis will dictate whether your customers rave about your trustworthiness or whether they decide to walk away. By taking the time to plan out your crisis response before you need it, you’ll ensure that you can react quickly and nothing gets dropped. 

Follow the steps above to create your own crisis management communication plan and impress your customers with your consistent, empathetic, and measured responses. 

Want to reply faster during a crisis? Make sure to check out our guide on creating an email response system using TextExpander.