How to Communicate with Customers During a System Outage

For customer support teams, system outages make for a tough day at the office, but they can also provide you with an opportunity to stand out. Several studies have shown that recovering well from a failure in service can lead to a higher customer satisfaction level than never having a failure at all — the service recovery paradox.

Emily and I chat how customer support teams can prepare for and respond to inevitable service interruptions, like those caused by the Feb. 28, 2017 AWS outage.

You can make a significant impact on the customer experience by focusing on communicating clearly with customers about system outages. Follow these tips and use the recommended samples and templates below to make your unplanned outage less painful for everyone.

The basic elements of great system outage messages

During the stress of a major service outage, it’s easy to forget that your customers are often in an even more difficult situation. They are impacted by the outage, but they also have far less information about what is happening. In many cases, they also have their own customers that are asking them for answers.

By being an accurate, clear, and timely source of information, you can reduce their stress significantly. Communication during an outage should:

  • Inform the customer: Let them know what is happening and what that means for them
  • Build their confidence: Let them know the situation is being taken seriously and actively worked on so they can safely do other work in the meantime.

It’s also important to make sure your outage message is easily accessible. After all, your artisanal, exquisitely handcrafted status message means nothing to people who never see it, so wherever you store your status updates, make sure your customers know where to look.

  • Link to your status page prominently in key locations like your contact page, your support/operations Twitter account, and your help documentation.
  • During an incident, push out messages on your primary support channels, acknowledging the issue and linking people to the status page as the source of updates.

You’ll also want to keep your status page on separate infrastructure to minimize the risk of an incident taking down your service and status page at the same time.

11 outage communication best practices

In my own career, writing status updates during major incidents have been some of the most nerve-wracking moments. You’re working under pressure, often with limited information, and writing to an audience of justifiably upset people.

Do your future self a favor and plan for surprises: think ahead about the most common types of outages, and come up with some sample communications. Write versions that will fit into an email, a status update, and even a tweet, and put them into your outage action plan.

Related: Help Scout workflows allow you to reply in bulk to multiple customers affected by the same issue.

As you’re drafting your communications for an unplanned system outage, follow these 12 best practices.

1. Acknowledge the issue

When you know a significant number of your customers are impacted, get an initial message out. Nothing shakes customer confidence like a status page that is showing “all good!” when major problems are occurring.

2. Empathize with impacted customers

Show some genuine understanding for your customers who have been at best delayed and perhaps much more heavily affected. Avoid cliches like “we apologize for any inconvenience” and go for something more specific and honest.

3. Clearly communicate the scope of the outage

It’s not always possible, but the more clearly you can define who is being affected and in what ways, the easier you make it for your customers to understand if what they are seeing is the same issue you’re reporting. If it’s a particular area of an application or a geographic location, share that information.

4. Focus on customer impact

Describe issues in the way the customer is affected instead of the internal cause. “Customers are unable to pay for goods” is better than “our payment gateway is down.”

5. Give alternatives where possible

If there are workarounds or backup options available that will work in the meantime, make those known. Clearly explain how customers can take advantage of those workarounds until things are back to working normally.

6. Don’t lay blame; take responsibility

You’re still responsible for your customer’s experience even if the fault is with a third-party system you use (and sometimes you can even solve problems outside your domain.

7. But do give important context

Mentioning a third party can be useful information if it gives your customers a better picture of what’s happening and how that will affect them. For example, “We’re in contact with our payment gateway, and once we know more from them, we’ll update you here.”

8. Write to your audience’s technical level

Provide as much detail as will be helpful — but no more. Too much technical detail can be confusing and unhelpful if much of your audience won’t understand it.

9. Don’t over-promise

It can be so tempting to say “we should be up in five minutes,” but outages can develop so quickly that it’s better to reserve specifics for when your technical team has triple-confirmed it.

10. Add personality, but do so carefully

You don’t have to turn into a corporate robot when things are going wrong. As long as you’ve got honest, clear communication covered, a little empathetic GIF sharing can help you connect with your customers.

11. Follow up regularly

Even if you don’t have new information to share, consistently updating your messages helps those affected know that you’re still working on it and that they haven’t been forgotten. Pick a cadence and stick to it, and don’t forget to sound the all-clear once the situation is resolved.

System outage notification template

To help you get started, we’ve created this template you can use when writing your own system outage notification messages:

Customers are experiencing [problem] and [result of problem]

Some customers are seeing [problem]. We’re aware of the issue and are working on it urgently.

[List of applicable workarounds and/or warnings]

We’re really sorry to be holding you up today! Please know our teams are working hard to get everything up and running, and we will update you in [timeframe] with the latest information.

Using the template above, we can write our own custom system outage notification.

System outage notification sample

Let’s say our customers are seeing generic error messages throughout our app. Some people are able to use the app; others aren’t. There are widespread issues affecting people in varied ways.

Using the template above, our system outage notification would be written like this:

Some customers seeing error messages and unable to use Help Scout.

Some customers are seeing intermittent error messages throughout their accounts. We’re aware of the issue and are working on it urgently.

Incoming messages are being safely received and stored, but they won’t show in your account until the problem is resolved. We recommend not sending any outgoing messages at the moment.

We’re really sorry to be holding you up today! Please know our engineering and operations teams are working hard to get everything up and running, and we will update you right here in 15 minutes with the latest information.

The title describes the issue in the way your customers will experience it and in the language they’d use if they contacted you. This is much better than highly specific and technical titles like “database errors when connecting” or “servers not available.”

The notification itself covers what customers are seeing, tells them what is affected, lets them know if they need to change their usage, and tells them when to expect the next update.

A few of our favorite outage tweets:

Writing empathetic, informative communications is tough. Writing them for public view in fewer than 140 characters is tougher. Hats off to the teams behind these tweets!

Communication during outages is easier if you’re prepared

Outages are stressful for customers and for the teams supporting them, but having a plan and some well-thought-out outage notification samples can help make things easier.

Customers will always appreciate the companies who communicate clearly during outages, even when the problem itself isn’t easily fixed.

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Mathew Patterson

Mathew Patterson

After running a support team for years, Mat joined the marketing team at Help Scout, where we make excellent customer service achievable for companies of all sizes. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.