Redmond, We Have a Problem: 5 Tips On Breaking Bad News To IT Clients

Unwelcome news can be nerve wracking all around. When something happens that compromises the service you provide to a client, there’s anxiety about losing the relationship and losing the business. In IT, the problem can be compounded since often a customer’s IT infrastructure isn’t one component of their service, but foundational. A service outage can leave a client, whether private or public, completely crippled for the duration of the problem.

As service providers we take pride in the service we provide and go to great lengths to build trust through superior delivery and integrity. When there’s a breakdown, whether a server outage or another kind of service drop off significantly impacting the client’s own ability to deliver their service, we go into crisis mode. As the self help coaches tell us, the word crisis means a decision point. It can be an opportunity both to strengthen the client relationship, paradoxically, and to look under the hood and see what your company is made of. You get a chance to perform under pressure and to see how your team members hold their own in that situation.

We’ve seen companies go into a full tail spin after a series of service outages, which reflected poorly on internal processes. They had a reactive ad hoc approach to situations in general. Responding to the crisis situation with a similar ad hoc approach only compounded the problem. Role confusion in that situation left people assuming other people would handle the problem and communicate to clients, which corroded trust. A good plan can go a long way here. The emergency communication plan should hit on several key elements.

Tip 1: Categorize the Problem and Assign Roles

These could be two separate points, but since the thought here is to go in sequence, and both of these processes need to take place at point of problem identification, we’ll touch on them together. A good service outage plan classifies problems into categories based on client impact. How many clients are affected? In what way? How long is the service down for? How will the client communication take place?

Once you’ve identified the level of impact, the pre-assigned roles kick in. Who is communicating with vendors involved? Who is communicating to which clients? Who is scoping the problem, investigating the cause, notifying internally? Who is coordinating all these efforts to make sure they go smoothly? Identifying the best candidate for this primary emergency coordination is key.

Tip 2: Identify Clients Affected

Seems obvious, right? Let’s say the Service Manager is drafting a notification to clients, and in his haste accidentally submits to all clients and makes no mention of scope of the problem or that only a few clients were affected. Trust can be widely affected, since clients assume this was a complete service outage affecting every client, causing the company to look widely incompetent, given selling points of “security” and “high availability.”

Tip 3: Communicate Internally

Maintain an open line of communication internally, providing ongoing updates as to the progress on determining cause, affected clients, and information communicated to clients so that everyone at key points of interface with clients is on the same page. There’s nothing worse from the client side than getting mixed messages from the company handling something as key as your IT network. Email can be cumbersome here. An internal chat board like Lync or Yammer can work wonders on keeping everyone up to speed.

Tip 4: Communicate with the Client

There should be three types of communication: one for keeping clients up to date in an ongoing way, one means of receiving incoming client communication to receive feedback on the progress and your communication, and another to summarize the problem, the cause, and the solution. The first is situational and ongoing. One preferred method is to use text messages to the primary point of contact along with an email documenting the nature of the outage and expected point of solution. Your helpdesk will probably be fielding calls and emails already, and having a robust ticketing system in place is a good means of coordinating the process.

The macro level communication should be carefully crafted via email, outlining the problem, duration, cause, and solution. Have the IT director and Account Manager inspect this to check for technical and stylistic accuracy before sending out. Once this is sent out, it needs to be sent to all staff along with a list of clients who received the notice, so that all staff are unified in their understanding and their message. Open, transparent, and consistent client communication reinforces rather than corrodes trust and confidence. People generally understand problems arise, even if they’re frustrating. If you handle the problem expertly, you’ve demonstrated value beyond the initial deliverables mentioned in the sales meeting.

Tip 5: Conduct A Post Mortem

This involves internal analysis of how quickly the problem was identified, communicated, and solved, and how well each contributor performed their role. This can identify cracks in the foundation, lead to alterations of the emergency notification plan, and possibly even some Human Resources decisions. This can provide information for a follow up notification to clients to summarize the problem and how it was handled so there are no question marks left for your clients.

Providing high quality services is no small feat. Demonstrating excellence in handling crises can put you a cut above, reinforce the client relationship, and generate even more word of mouth.


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