For customer service professionals across many industries, a crisis often results in a sudden spike in customer requests for information — and in cancellations from and refunds for people who are often angry and very stressed.
Maintaining high-quality service under those conditions is not easy. We’ve put together some crisis communication tips to help your team deliver the best service possible without burning out or lowering standards.
Prefer to watch a video instead? Check out this webinar on helping your customers cope with a crisis, featuring Help Scout's VP of Customer Support Abigail Phillips, Account Executive Zainab Allawala, and Customer Champion Kelly Hummell.
Collect all the information you’ll need
Information gathering is the first step in effectively managing your support queues and customer communication during a crisis. The specifics will vary according to the situation, but here are some questions to start with:
Who are your policy and approach decision-makers? Determine who is responsible for deciding your company’s official response to the crisis. They will be the people who can review your crisis plan and sign off on it.
Who best understands the likely impact on your business and customers? Identify the stakeholders and experts in the affected areas (e.g., shipping, finance, transport). They will inform your customer communications.
When should you expect updated information? It can be hard to predict, but ask the folks you identify in #1 and #2 above for their best estimate of when they will know more so you can best plan your customer-facing communications.
What are the relevant policies, and will they change? Do you have current policies on cancellation times, refunds, credits, or rain-checks? Will those policies be amended during the crisis? Ask your decision-makers and experts for their input and ensure everyone understands the final arrangement.
What are the key dates for customers to know? Sharing relevant dates with your customers helps build their confidence and patience. For example, give them a date by which they need to cancel to get a refund or the date you will decide if an event will go ahead.
When you have gathered all the information, you can be more confident in your customer service crisis planning. The next step is to equip your team with the tools they need to succeed.
Prepare your team
In the initial stages of a crisis, it can be a scramble for your front-line staff to understand what’s happening and how to respond. As soon as possible, one or more people need to step out of the queue to focus on enabling the rest of the team with solid information and assistance.
1. Create an internal “source of truth” document
Pick a single location accessible to all the relevant people in the company, such as an intranet or internal knowledge base. It should be a page that is easy to update (and perhaps one with a version history built in for reference).
On that page, include all the key information you have gathered, such as:
Detailing the current impact of the crisis on your business.
Listing the decision makers in charge.
Recording the customer-impacting decisions made so far, such as refund policies.
Showing where to find appropriate and approved language for speaking with customers.
Setting expectations for when the information will be updated.
Share that page with every customer-facing team member, and ensure everyone knows that it is the place to look for the most accurate and current information. Consider including a way for people to subscribe by email or message to updates on the page.
2. Create a public information point for customers
Your customers will need their own source for reliable, up-to-date information. Your support and/or PR folks can often predict the most common issues in advance, and the work you have done for your internal document can be adapted for customers, too.
Put your page somewhere accessible to all of your customers, and ensure it’s easily updatable. Share information to help your customers make more informed decisions on what they need to do, when to expect delayed products or services, and any alternate arrangements you have organized.
3. Create a set of prepared answers
Your public page will necessarily contain the most broadly applicable information, but your team should still anticipate more complex and detailed, but still common, questions from individual customers.
Start a document, listing out the questions you expect. Look at what has already come in through your support and social channels for repeated topics.
For each question, craft an answer using information gathered from your key stakeholders above, taking care to be:
Empathetic — People may be scared, confused, and upset.
Clear — Avoid jargon and be as specific as you can.
Consistent — Check for any contradictions between your answers.
Realistic — Don’t over-promise if you don’t have all the information yet.
Helpful — Give alternative options where they are available.
Each answer should also include a link back to your public crisis communication page, directing people there for the latest information.
Have your sample answers reviewed for accuracy by experts and owners inside your company before you begin to roll them out to the team. As you share those answers, give your team some guidance on how and when to use them. Should every customer get the same answer, or do some require special handling? Should answers be adjusted for certain situations?
Now your team is well-equipped to confidently answer customer queries. You can make that job easier for them by setting up your customer service systems to reduce their workload and amplify their efforts.
Set up your customer service tools
1. Create Saved Replies
Be sure to give them a useful name that helps you quickly find them when you need them, and clean them up later when the crisis has passed.
Rather than using one long document, saved replies should generally be broken down into logical pieces so that the customer service agent can combine only the relevant sections into a personalized answer for the customer. Inside each piece, make it clear if the agent needs to customize an answer before sending.
2. Create Workflows to identify likely related questions
Make use of any customer service automation features available to you to speed up your responses. For example, your workflow might look for mentions of the crisis and copy those messages to a separate folder for faster review and follow-up.
Adding a tag will let you easily report on the impact of the crisis on support volume and responsiveness, and it will enable you to review your performance. Your workflow could even add an internal note giving the agent guidance on how to handle the conversation.
3. Review your knowledge base documentation
Rock-solid self-service is enormously helpful during a crisis. Find any existing help documents that affected customers might find (e.g., how to cancel an order or how to get a refund). Read through them in the context of the crisis, and see if they need to be amended.
Consider adding a temporary call-out in those documents, linking people to the public “source of truth” document you created above.
4. Update your contact points
Encourage customers to visit your public statement by linking to it prominently from your key support entry points, including your contact us page and social media profiles.
5. Update your email footers
Add links to your public statement in the footer of your customer-facing emails to help customers find it before they even need to hit reply.
6. Make contextual information accessible
Your shared inbox or customer service software may allow you to automatically include contextual information with each conversation. For example, help customer service staff quickly identify VIPs or account-managed customers who may require special handling.
With accurate information and updated systems, your team is ready to dive into those surging support queues and social feeds. For the customer service leader, the final job is to facilitate that work and look after your team.
Delivering consistent support in a crisis
Customer service work can be emotionally exhausting at the best of times, but during a crisis it can become overwhelming, and that will result in burnout and reduced support quality. While the frontline workers deliver service, here’s how to best support them:
Care for your support team: Take action to reduce their stress by calmly and consistently communicating with them. Well-informed people give better support. Rotate staff through channels and support roles where possible, and be sure to acknowledge their extra effort to the rest of the company.
Bring in additional help: If your company practices Whole Company Support, your non-support teams may be able to quickly step up to help out. Even if not, you should now have communication resources and tools set up that will enable non-support-experts to help with the simpler cases. That can free up some of your support professionals to handle queue triage, escalation, and quality-checks.
Be cautious about automation: While workflows can really help manage the load, a crisis is typically not the time to experiment with automatic responses to customers. Use automation to save time that your team can use to carefully read customer queries and craft their responses.
Collect information and adapt your resources: Even while the crisis continues, team leaders should be reviewing the tagged conversations, looking for recurring questions that the documentation hasn’t covered, and updating saved replies to best answer customers’ queries.
Use that information to update the documentation and prepared answers, and then tell your team about any changes.
Surviving a crisis and preparing for next time
Although a crisis may drag on for some time, eventually the volume will drop and the workload will become more manageable. With some thoughtful preparation and ongoing communication, you can help your team cope with the pressure and assist your customers more effectively.
Once the immediate rush is over, take some time to review what happened with your team. What resources really helped, and what seemed to be missing? Which responses were well received, and which didn’t hit the mark? What tools could you add that might help next time?
Don’t forget to remove out-of-date information and return your contact points to their non-crisis state. There will almost always be another big issue coming, but now is the time to reflect, relax with some self-care, and then begin preparations for the next challenge.