CEO Real Talk: By Gordon Fowler

Glitches happen.

Unfortunately, this week has seen two major mishandlings of “glitches” that could have been mitigated with good communications.

Crisis Communications Image

First, the State of Hawaii had their slightly worrying “ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii” emergency text alert that resulted in a 40-minute lack of information before being rescinded. Then, Wells Fargo, whose reputation is not exactly stellar already, had a computer glitch resulting in many of its customers getting double-billed for online bill pays, resulting in checking accounts with far fewer dollars than expected or even overdrawn, resulting in overdraft charges.

Human (or computer) error is not going away. But, it would seem, how we handle these issues has tons of room for improvement.

From my perspective, as a marketer (and as a Wells Fargo customer), the biggest issue for both “glitches” was lack of communication.

With Wells Fargo in particular, it was easy to quickly see that numerous customers were facing the same issue thanks to Twitter and Facebook. So, IT error. However, with multi-hour hold times, often resulting in disconnections, the disabling of online account email access, and no information or updates from the company on their numerous social media channels, customers went from seeing confirmation without major concern to frustrated and angry.

3 Key Messages to Communicate in a Crisis

Fact is, often it’s not the “glitch” that causes us to lose valuable customer trust or relationships, it’s our lack of communication during the crisis that takes it from an honest mistake to a lost customer.

When an error or glitch occurs that affects your customers, communicate during the crisis – not once it’s all over.  Your customers want to hear from you.

Here are the three key messages that you should be able to deliver:

  1. Validate your customers’ frustrations and experiences
  2. Tell your customers that you are actively working to fix the issue and, when you have, you’ll make it right for them (even though you might not have the specific solution yet).
  3. Provide updates to customers around what is happening, how long fixes will take, what you are going to do to help them and when, and what steps, if any, they should take to streamline their resolution.

Reaching Out to Your Customers in a Crisis

The best option is to contact your customers individually when communicating in a crisis. However, this is not always possible. So, when communicating with customers in mass, make sure to do the following:

  • Be honest. Be transparent. Be apologetic.
  • Put a message on your phone’s hold line that states you are aware of the problem and are working to fix it.
  • Send out an email to your customers notifying them that you are aware of the issue and are working on a solution, as well as apologizing for any inconveniences they may be experiencing.
  • Jump on your social media channels and provide updated information as you have it.
  • Place a statement on the home page of your website and update as new information comes in.

We’ve already seen the “what went wrong” news stories about Hawaii, and I’m sure the Wells Fargo’s PR team is going to be rolling their CEO in front of the media to apologize for this latest debacle. But, frankly, it’s too late.

Bottom line: What could have been easily forgiven as honest errors with quick and transparent communications in the midst of the crises is now going to be a long, and mostly ineffective, journey of rebuilding customer faith and public trust.

Why? Because, in the moment of crisis, there was silence. And where there’s silence, there’s a vacuum ready to be filled by anger, fear, rumor, and distress.

Don’t wait until you have the solution before you communicate with your customers during a crisis.