Email customers - crisis management
We consulted on an emergency recently (shocking, I know). The very short of it is that a large service-based corporation contacted me after discovering an independent franchise owner skipped town without delivering services clients had paid for. It’s easily high-five-to-six-figures in fraud. The corporate isn’t legally responsible for his actions or the money he took, but they own the brand – and angry customers don’t differentiate between the brand and guy they licensed to use their brand. They don’t care. They want answers and accountability from someone.
We laid out a communication plan that would get them ahead of the story and protect their brand from further damage. We laid out how to draw a clear line between them and the franchise owner without looking like they’re making excuses or passing the buck. It revolved around coming out with a strong public message and full disclosure to all of their customers and stakeholders.
But the owners decided not to do it. They’re worried that making a big deal about it will backfire on them. They hope that they can handle this quietly. They plan to send emails explaining the situation to all of their recent clients and everyone with an appointment in the next week.
Here’s the thing: communicating with your clients about a crisis isn’t about letting them know that a crisis happened and then going on about your business. Crisis communication is a cyclical process of effectively sharing information AND responding to questions about the crisis. It’s that second part that’s actually where most crises turn into catastrophes.
In most cases, people decide to send an email to only a few customers because they want to keep it as quiet as possible and not start a panic or media storm.  Remember my post a few weeks ago on Deadly E-mail Sins that Make You Look Dumb? This falls under Deadly Sin Number 1, and is a bad idea for the same reasons I listed there:
It’s a self-centered justification that doesn’t actually improve communication. What they’re really saying is “Writing a long e-mail makes me feel less vulnerable and lets me pretend I’m in control of this difficult situation, because conflict makes me really uncomfortable and I don’t want anyone to know that I’m not in control of this situation.”   Giving in to this excuse just escalates misunderstandings and drags them out needlessly. I agree – it’s certainly more comfortable addressing a difficult subject from the comfort and privacy of your computer screen. But what feels comfortable is not the same thing as what is the most effective; and I guarantee that the other person won’t understand you better in writing. They never do. What seems perfectly clear and reasonable in your head after spending an hour composing an e-mail is easily misunderstood without tone, expression, and the other guy being able to ask questions and get immediate clarification. What they do communicate clearly is tension and aloofness — because when someone receives a five paragraph e-mail about a tense subject, they feel like they have to respond with a similarly long e-mail… and the cycle spins out of control while everyone wastes hours writing e-mails. Long e-mail just trigger more long e-mails… and very little else.
“Yes, it’s less comfortable and you’ll feel more vulnerable if you talk it out – but it’s better to be uncomfortable for five minutes than it is to spend five days (or five months!) sorting out a conflict via email that could have been prevented with a single face-to-face conversation.
The same is true in a crisis. It’s better to expose yourself via video, press releases, and interaction –  and fix the problem now – than it is try to avoid confrontation. Because that’s what’s really happening when someone takes this approach. They’re doing the crisis communication equivalent of breaking up with your girlfriend by text message. Have the difficult conversation. Put it all out there. Yes, you’ll spend a couple of days as the center of attention – but then people will figure out that there’s nothing more to the story that you’ve told them, and they’ll move on.  They’ll know that you were upfront and had nothing to hide. The alternative is dragging it out, losing control, and losing trust.
These days, you have to accept the great paradox of crisis communications: that keeping things quiet draws more attention, and that making big announcements keeps crises contained.
I tell clients that the degree of negative response you get is inversely proportional to how public and honest you are in your first communication. If you go big and tell everyone everything, people will know that you’re handling the situation and had nothing to hide. The media won’t dig too hard because there’s nothing more for them to dig up. If they think you’re anything less than open and honest and transparent, they’ll attack.  The thing they’ll remember most is the rumors and confusion of hearing big news second-hand, not the explanation you eventually issue.
Because customers don’t exist in a vacuum, unconnected to other customers or social media. And when your brand is spread across multiple locations, there’s no such thing as an isolated incident. Even if the problem only directly affects customers of one location, it indirectly affects all of your customers and directly concerns them. You’re unintentionally sending a message to your other stakeholders that you didn’t value them enough to communicate with them.  They’re going to have questions about whether or not they can trust you. It is magical thinking to make plans assuming that they won’t mind hearing about a major scandal through the grapevine. And you’re in denial if you think that they’ll believe you aren’t hiding anything from them and give you the benefit of the doubt.
That’s what happens when you only contact a few of your customers about a scandal. You lose EVERYONE’s trust, because your other customers wonder why you didn’t want them to know about it. Are you hiding something they should know about? Why wouldn’t you tell everyone if you had nothing to hide?  Nixon learned the hard way that it’s not the crime – it’s the cover up that kills you.
Here’s what really happens when you send that email: 
The customers you send the email to have unanswered questions and are going to talk to other people – including other customers. 
Those other customers are going to worry that they’re victims, too – but that someone overlooked them because they didn’t hear anything. They’re going to wonder why they didn’t find out about this from the company directly. They’re going to wonder what the company is trying to hide. They’re going to wonder if they’re getting screwed over.  They’re not going to know if their location, their services are affected. 
There are always at least a few people who truly are victims but were overlooked because their purchases weren’t recent and they didn’t get an email. 
So they’re going to start calling and emailing and hitting social media to get answers. 
If they don’t get those answers quickly, they’re going to do something to protect themselves – like contact the BBB and the FTC, call their credit card company to report a fraud or stop payment, or storm into their local branch and start loudly demanding answers from the staff. 
That will pull the staff away from helping other customers, who will notice what’s happening and start asking the same questions themselves.  The staff will be overwhelmed, they’ll give out garbled, incomplete, or completely wrong information – and the damage will be done.  
Your corporate office will be unable to field and respond to the emails and calls from the hundreds of people you contacted and the hundreds more that you didn’t contact. You’ll trip over your proverbial feet trying to track emails and record information. 
And then, when the phone won’t stop ringing and there are 700 unread emails in your inbox, government officials will show up on your doorstep. You’ll be frantic, you’ll overcompensate and communicate poorly, and they’ll misinterpret that as responsibility for the mess. 
You’ll end up paying thousands and thousands of dollars to your lawyers to handle their investigation, you’ll lose a minimum of 50% of your customers, and you’ll have 200 new angry reviews pop up anytime someone Googles you or checks out your Facebook page.  
You may recover – a little – but your brand will be permanently damaged and you may end up getting fined for something that really wasn’t your fault.  
All because you were worried about attracting attention.
So what do you do?
You accept that it’s better to tell a big story and control how people find out bad news than it is to react to a viral beast.  
If you absolutely insist on only using email, you have to accept that the email is the beginning of the storm, not the end of it. You have to put a strong communication plan in place for your entire organization.  
This should include:
  1. A detailed memo written in plain English (read: not by your legal department) giving employees at all of your locations and franchises simple answers to questions customers are likely to ask. Make sure that every employee gets a copy. Expect that they’ll have questions, so make sure they have a way to get clarification. What seems clear to you may not make sense to the technician or receptionist 600 miles away.
  2. A letter to customers with basic answers in plain English that every location can hand out to anyone who shows up asking questions.  The letter should refer them to a website, Facebook page, email address, or phone number that they can call to get answers.
  3. A communications coordinator, who ensures that new information is quickly released or posted online where people can get it without having to email or call. Their focus is distributing information once you have confirmed answers.
  4. A team to respond to emails and answer phone calls. You have to accept that you’re going to need help with this. Think of how long it takes you to answer a single email from an angry customer. Now multiply that times 100… 200…400…1,000. You’ll need several people answering emails and tracking responses in a database. If you only have one phone line, expect a lot of voicemails and angry customers who couldn’t get through jammed lines. You’re going to need extra people on the phone who are thoroughly briefed on the answers customers are likely to want. Don’t expect your normal receptionist to be able to handle all of this.  
  5. A person or team to monitor social media, collect information, and give answers. Not excuses and apologies, mind you. Answers.
  6. A system for tracking email responses and assigning issues to staff so no one slips through the cracks. When you have a lot of emails dumping into the same email address,  there’s a high risk that multiple people will waste time answering the same emails. Sending a customer two or three uncoordinated responses to their question is a surefire way to look incompetent and make them even angrier.  You have to have a system for recording those emails in a list, and having your team know when someone else is already working on an email. Without a system to ensure that every customer gets an answer – and gets the right answer the first time – your crisis response will turn into chaos.


When you don’t plan to communicate during a reputation-risking crisis or when you try to “keep it quiet,” what you’re really saying is that avoiding confrontation is more important that protecting your reputation. 
The hard part isn’t the actual logistics. Those don’t take long. The most complicated emergency logistical set-up Frank has ever managed – setting up the mammoth Government Relations Office for the Columbia shuttle explosion investigation –  took just less than a week. And that included moving another office out of the location they needed without disrupting operations. When Frank and I respond to a crisis on-site, we can have answers flowing to customers in just a few hours. It usually takes us less than two days to get the entire crisis response infrastructure and answers in place and have a client well on their way to managing the communication deluge. That’s starting from scratch. When you plan ahead, it’s even easier.
No, the hard part is convincing someone that they need to do it at all – and that they don’t need to be afraid of publicity during a crisis. The hard part is convincing them that it’s more risky to send an email about one crisis that isn’t your fault and  trigger a second communication crisis that is your fault. And that it’s always better to give a strong, controlled, trust-building response to the first crisis and prevent that second crisis from ever happening. 
Meredith Hutchison Hartley business signature

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.