Here in Houston, Texas, it's not uncommon to face the possibility of an approaching hurricane from time to time. The last major storm was Hurricane Ike in 2008. This storm left some residents in the area without power for a week. In thinking about this crisis situation, I thought about some ways to handle customer service both during and in the aftermath of a crisis.
Planning - I hear someone saying "Planning! Errol how do you plan during a crisis?" My response to that would be "Hopefully you've planned before the crisis." While it's not always within one's power to know of an impending crisis, that does not mean that multiple scenario plans should not be in place. Take a look at your organization and think about what external issues can cause a crisis for you. Is it weather? How about a shortage of a component that's necessary to build your product? What about internal issues - defective product, incorrect billing information or maybe it's a large service outage caused by equipment failure. It's important to specifically determine who and what, both internally and externally, might be impacted by a crisis as this helps one to formulate a plan to work through the situation or perhaps prevent one altogether.
Communication - This is another critical component of providing customer service during a crisis. Whatever the crisis - weather related, product related, operations related - communication is a key factor in successfully manuevering through the situation. Good internal communication is necessary for executing the plan. It's important to be able to quickly gauge the severity of the crisis in order to properly communicate both internally and to impacted external customers. Take proactive steps to communicate with your external customer. Proactively notify them of the situation. Be honest and open about the issue and the possible impact. Provide regular situation updates to your customer. When the situation has the potential to create a flood of inbound calls to your organization, utilize your Interactive Voice Responder (IVR) to advise callers that you are aware of the situation, what steps you're taking to address the issue and where appropriate how long before normalcy is restored. Proactively email or text your customers with information regarding the situation. When utilizing these two methods, be sure to give enough information so as not to generate an influx of inbound calls - the nature of the issue and expected time/method of resolution may prove adequate. Communicate to your front line employees what they are to inform inbound callers/web chatters that want to "hear" a voice. Regularly provide internal updates to keep everyone informed of the status of the crisis. As the situation changes, change what you communicate. Push out the information to impacted customers versus waiting for the customer to contact you for updates. Depending upon your industry and your crisis, proactive media notification may be required as well.
Evaluation - Take the time to evaluate how well your plan is working during the crisis. Get feedback during the situation - you may need to make adjustments to your response plan. Have unforeseen issues arisen that were not considered when creating the plan? What are those close to the crisis reporting? How will our external customers be impacted? How do we adjust our plan execution to include these unforeseen issues?
After normalcy is restored, it's important to evaluate the situation. A post crisis evaluation allows for a reflective look at the situation. What created the crisis? Was the situation preventable? How well was the response plan executed? How well did we communicate internally? How well did we proactively communicate with the external customer? Has anyone called any of the impacted external customers to get feedback on the handling of the crisis? Now that the crisis is over, take the time to get answers to these questions. Get the viewpoint of those responsible for interacting with the customer during the crisis. What questions did the customer present? Did they have the information to confidently respond to the customer? Were they updated in a timely manner. Evaluate the IVR reports to determine the percentage of customers that deemed the "crisis information" adequate by not optioning out to customer service agents. This information can can be considered when reviewing crisis plans and adjustments made accordingly.
Providing customer service during a crisis can be tough for any organization. Remember to the importance of Planning for the possibility of a crisis. Be sure to Communicate regularly both internally and especially with the external customer in the midst of the crisis. Evaluate your execution during and after the crisis to identify necessary adjustments. Your brand reputation may be at stake!