When the servers are down, the building is on fire, or your workforce is quarantined for a global pandemic, customers need information. Don’t scramble to structure an effective message during an emergency. Use this crisis communication template to answer the seven questions your customers are asking.
I developed this crisis communication template over a decade of leading customer support teams and communicating with customers through escalations and crises. I used this format when hundreds of hospitals lost patient billing data due to a faulty server and when a vendor outage left thousands of customers without access for three days. This structure works.
Answer these seven questions every time you communicate with customers during a crisis.
1. What is the problem?
Briefly state the problem, the effects of the problem, and when it started – from the customer’s point of view. Explain the impact to your customers in language they will understand.
Acknowledge the root cause of the problem if known, but skip lengthy technical explanations that aren’t relevant to the customer’s goals.
Stating the problem is critical in your initial communication and also in subsequent updates. Don’t assume that your audience has any prior knowledge of the crisis.
Here’s an example:
Customers are experiencing delays in bill processing and cash collection because transactions are not automatically importing into the billing system. The outage started at 7:05am CT when we detected our SFTP server had become unresponsive.
In the example, notice how the problem is stated from the customers’ viewpoint. You should still acknowledge that the server is down, but structure the message around the customers’ goals of processing bills and collecting cash.
2. Is there a workaround?
Whether your customers are trying to watch a movie or process financial transactions, they prefer the temporary inconvenience of a workaround to unproductive downtime, so you must inform your customers about alternative ways to achieve their goals.
If you can empower customers with a workaround, they may no longer perceive this as a crisis.
During this outage, you can manually import transactions through the “Transaction Import” feature of the application. If you need assistance using this feature, please contact our technical support agents at 1-800-555-1212.
3. What have you already done?
Explain what actions you’ve taken to address the crisis and detail any progress you’ve made toward a resolution. Answer this question to accomplish three goals:
- Indicate that you understand the severity of the customer impact by the swiftness of your response
- Inspire confidence that you are in command of the situation and are taking the appropriate steps to resolve the problem
- Acknowledge any impediments that have interrupted your progress since your last update
Customers appreciate honesty and transparency. Be forthcoming about your progress and any setbacks you’ve encountered.
When we were alerted to the unresponsive server, we immediately suspended processing to prevent additional import failures. Then we attempted to restart the server. Unfortunately, the server did not restart, further delaying our ability to restore service.
4. What are you doing next?
Outline the remaining steps you will be taking to resolve the crisis.
Explain your plan and what customers can expect in the time ahead. Provide enough detail for customers have confidence in your approach and understand how it impacts their goals.
Also communicate the timeframe for any intermediate milestones.
We are currently diagnosing the problem with the server in an attempt to repair it. Meanwhile, we are provisioning a second server in case we are not able to repair the existing server. We estimate that one of these servers will be functional in the next 2 hours. After that, we will process all the imports that have queued during this outage and resume importing transactions normally.
5. When will the crisis be over?
Anticipate this question and be ready to answer it. Customers always want to know when the crisis will be over, so provide a realistic estimate.
Estimating a resolution time is an art form. Underestimate, and customers become more frustrated when you don’t deliver on time. Overestimate, and customers may be pleasantly surprised when you deliver early. However, overestimate too much and customers may doubt your sense of urgency or question your competence.
As a guideline, take the best estimate from your most confident problem-solvers, multiply that by 1.5, and use that estimate in your customer communication. You’ll be thankful for the extra time if you encounter any unexpected problems.
We estimate that service will be fully restored and all transactions imported at 7am CT tomorrow.
6. What are the risks to the timeline?
Explain any known risks that could threaten the estimated timeline. Risks can come from reliance on third parties, equipment malfunctions, and even the weather.
When customers understand the risks, they are better equipped to make decisions. If you communicate risks up front, you gain credibility because of your honesty and transparency.
If you don’t outline the risks beforehand, your customers may think you’re making excuses when you miss your estimated timeframes.
While we do not anticipate any delays, an inability to locate replacement parts for the server could delay our ability to resume importing transactions automatically.
7. When will you provide another update?
Tell your customers when you will provide the next update. Allow customers to plan around your communication timeline.
Commit to a regular cadence of communication throughout the emergency to build confidence that you have the situation under control. If there are secondary communication channels, remind customers how to access them.
We will provide the next update on a customer conference call at 3pm CT, followed by email and a notification on our website. In the meantime, our technical support agents are available by phone at 1-800-555-1212.
Think like a customer
This crisis communication template tells you what questions to answer, but how you answer them is equally important.
Think like a customer as you prepare your message. Customers don’t care how this is impacting you, but are very concerned about how it is impacting them. Keep the customer’s goals and perspective in mind as you answer each question.
Print, bookmark, or share this crisis communication template so it’s handy the next time you have to communicate with customers during a crisis!