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Crisis Management - the importantce of informing customers

Last night I experienced the negative effects of poor information when a company faces a crisis. For two days there have been no trains going south-west out of Oslo due to a fire from a spark in a cable. The fact that this can stop the train traffic for three days is off course very worrying, but I wont comment more on that (and the fact that the industry still isn’t privatized…). What concerns me even more is how NSB, the Norwegian railway company controlled by the government, handled this problem.

I can tolerate that the train is not going as scheduled when there is a fire. But please TELL ME. I checked the scheduled time online just hours before departure - no warnings. This was 24 hours after the accident occurred.

The scheduled departure time was 19:45 (7.45 pm). At that time I was waiting by the train line. A message on the speaker system told me the train was cancelled and there would be a bus instead. This was 1 minute before departure. Great I thought. Now you tell me. And where can I find this bus? No information was given. After getting some answers from the sales personnel at the station I got to the bus. They told me about the bus and told them how poorly this was informed to the passengers. Well, it’s been like that all day she said. Well, I don’t care how your day was. Finding the correct bus was also a problem. Limited information was given, only brief descriptions that one bus was going to the central station and the other to a local station. For tourists this must have been confusing - there was no way of knowing which bus to take and what to do from there. When I asked if this was the correct bus to take me to my arrival station, I was a stupid look and given the answer ‘off course’.

Anyway, I spent 2 hours getting from Oslo to Drammen - a trip that usually takes 40 minutes or probably less. This was because I had to take a local train which stopped and every small little unknown place on the way. Rant over. Lessons learned from this seen from the eyes of a IT-company:

1. When a problem occurs be honest and give information as early as possible.
Is the server down? If you can give a good explanation on why - give it. When you know it will cause a problem for your customers - tell them. Don’t wait until you have 100 angry customers on the phone.

2. Give clear directions on what customers shall do.
How long will the server be down or when will the error be fixed? When can I use the service again? How about a sign-up to receive SMS/e-mail when the service is ready? Don’t leave customers with questions about the problem. Be clear on what actions you as a company are taking and what this will mean for the customer.

3. Show empathy.
Even in critical situations people can be very understanding as long as you show empathy. Not being able to use netbank or get online when the ADSL is not working can be very annoying, but it can be a lot worse when you as a customer do not feel the company is doing anything or don’t care about the problems this causes for you. Be personal: think and act as a person to a person, not a company to a customer.

A problem does not mean you will lose customers. A huge problem doesn’t need to result in any lost customers at all. But if you handle the crisis badly it guaranteely will.

Written on 22 March 2005.
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