Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The bulls**t of outage language

As this blog is often dedicated to pointing out downtime events, and offering advice on how to best communicate before/during/after the (inevitable) event, I thought this post by 37signals could come in handy next time you have to write an apology email to your customers.

Service operators generally suck at saying they’re sorry. I should know, I’ve had to do it plenty of times and it’s always hard. There’s really never a great way to say it, but there sure are plenty of terrible ways.

One of the worst stock dummies that even I have resorted to in a moment of weakness is this terrible non-apology: “We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused”. Oh please. Let’s break down why it’s bad...

I'll let you read the advice yourself, but I will point out a few of the visitor comments that speak to the message I've been harping on over the past few months:
Josh Catone:
Serious question: What WOULD be a better way to communicate with customers after downtime in your opinion? You didn’t offer and alternatives. I know you said stock responses should never be used… but I’d love to see some examples of what you think works..

Dan Gebhardt:
I’d recommend using a website monitoring service (we use Pingdom [editors note: *cough* Webmetrics *cough*]) to provide public accountability for your uptime. This not only proves that uptime is as important to you as it is to your customers, it can also help customers see any particular outage in the context of your overall service record.

Mark Weiss:
While a personal well thought out apology is nice. As a user I want to know when things are going to be working again. I want to know if I should go for a quick walk in the park or if I have time for some food, drinks, and then possibly a nap.

Just keep me informed so I know how to manage my time.

I think Flickr holds top honors for the best down time strategy and message. http://blogs.zdnet.com/Burnette/?p=147

Itinerant Networker:
Empathy’s not enough. Service providers should reveal details about why an outage happened, what they’re doing to make it not happen again, and should clearly communicate with customers (frequently) on the ETA of the outage. The most frustrating thing I hear is “we don’t have an ETR [estimated time to recovery]”. That is not acceptable in a service business – give me an ETR and then an estimate of how reliable the ETR is. This goes for even the lowest cable modem user calling $provider – the tier 1 guys should have at least some clue.

The bottom line is that what matters most is not that you never go down, but how you deal with that downtime. All your customers need is some form of honest communication during the event, some transparency into the severity of the problem, and a human explanation of what went wrong afterward. It really isn't very hard.

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