Calming the Angry Elephant: How to Communicate with Customers During a Product Crisis

So you have a crisis. Your product went down. Your site or reports froze.

Emails weren’t sent…or maybe they did…100 times instead of once.

Whatever it is, your product didn’t do the job your customers hired it for.

When disaster strikes, you have two choices: Hide from it, or face it down.

Hiding will cost you.

How you react will directly affect your customer churn or renewal rates, what your customers will do (do they tweet about it? Do the offer to help?), and the morale of your team.

That’s why, if you’re the product manager, and there’s an issue with the product you’re in charge of, you need to take the lead to help communicate with your customers about it.

You can’t often do much to help engineering do their jobs, so helping with communication internally and externally can be really valuable to reduce distractions for them and show you’re doing your part.

You also then build a culture of facing problems down directly.

My team knows that if anyone finds a bug or problem, the first question will be, “who is affected?” followed by, “can you get me a list of their names and emails?” (More on this shortly).

Today, I’ll share how you can lessen the long term damage, and even earn some good will in a tough situation with your product.

What PMs should do first in a Product Crisis

Ever had a wave of upset customers mad about your product? I’ve been there.

I first learned about dealing with such issues when I was at KISSmetrics. We ran into some serious tech debt / scaling issues that led to angry tweets, lots of support tickets, and even AdWords run against us by our cutthroat competitor, MixPanel:

While there’s nothing you can say or do that will save you if the problem continues, the right message at the right time can buy you time to address it, and relieve a great deal of tension.

Here’s how to approach it:

1) Communicate internally

This is one of those times all those soft skills of being a product manager come into play:

  • Your customers are stressed: They can’t use your product as intended for the reason(s) they pay you for it.
  • Your product team is stressed: They’re scrambling to understand and resolve the issue.
  • Your company is stressed: Everyone from sales to customer success to executives will hear about a big issue. And they often won’t be able to do anything about except add more pressure to the situation.

As a product manager, you need to step up your game and work to communicate with everyone calmly and effectively.

Be a source of calm…

The first thing you need to do is relax. As leader, it’s important to be calm and under control. Understanding the problem and having a plan should give you reason to be confident when communicating internally, then later externally, about the problem.

Don’t understand the problem? Then, that’s priority one.

Ask the basics:

  • What happened?
  • Who is affected?
  • Why did it happen? (If you can get to the root cause)
  • Is it ongoing or are things back up and running?
  • What is the estimate to a fix?

If you know those basics, you can help your team by starting to communicate with those that need to be in the loop. Those can be people like the sales and customer success teams you interface with, and of course any other key stakeholders.

From there, you can start looking at how to communicate with customers.

2) Use the right level response for the size of the problem, and the size of your company

This advice applies most to small startups and businesses (1-50 employees). As you grow, you’ll likely have a more resilient product, a full marketing team to support you, and set policies to follow.

However, regardless of your company’s size, it’s very beneficial to understand what your plans would be in the event of a crisis. By the time something happens, it’s a lot harder and more stressful to come up with it on the fly.

You also want to scale your response to the size of the problem.

Find out who is affected. Only send a response to them, especially if it’s a small group

I like to send personal emails (or work with account managers/customer reps) for small groups affected. Then, for bigger groups, I’ll ask an engineer for a list of every customer affected with their name and email in CSV. That makes it easy to quickly import that list into your favorite email marketing tool to fire off such a note.

tell your boss about the product crisis

3) Always keep your boss in the loop

Finally, use your best judgment and run any plan like this by your boss.

Whether that’s the CEO, a product leader, or a founder, they’re going to have opinions, thoughts, and concerns as your product crisis unfolds. And if you’re not updating them, they’re going to ask you, or go bug your team for updates.

While we’re focusing today on communicating with your customers, many of these same approaches can also help in managing up with your boss.

As important as it is to update them, it’s also a good idea to get their approval for sending the kind of note we suggest. They can help with a quick proof read of your email before sending, so it fits the desired tone, and make them feel a part of the solution, too.

angry customers

How to Communicate with Customers During a Product Crisis

When reports started getting slow at KISSmetrics, at first we hid from the issue. We assumed it was just some edge cases, and maybe it would go away. (It didn’t.)

Instead, it got worse.

Finally, we decided we needed to say something, so our VP of Product and Engineering wrote an email we sent to customers.

And then we braced.

We didn’t know how customers would react, and so we hoped for the best and prepared for the worst.

Fortunately, the immediate response was incredibly supportive. Suddenly, the elephant in the room was gone, and we could focus on improving things for customers without fear of how they’d react.

Since then I’ve used the same approach, and learned a few key additions that have helped me with products I’ve worked on and a number of my friends do the same.

Here’s a few keys when you need to write the note:

show empathy to your customers and their situation

1) Show empathy

If your product matters, which if people buy it, it must be important to them, then showing you appreciate its importance can help a lot.

Speak to the use cases you know the problem impacts like “your ability to have those numbers for your weekly marketing meeting” or “your ability to properly prepare for your 1 on 1s with your team members.”

If you don’t know how your customers use your product, then it’s time to figure it out. Pay attention to what people are quite possibly screaming to support about that they really need, and speak their language.

When people feel heard and understood, they are more likely to be calm and understanding. When you show empathy to them, they’re more likely to show empathy for you.

Put this early in your note to customers.

self deprecation is an asset here

2) Call yourself every name in the book

This isn’t a joke. You’re showing that you know it’s bad, and you need to do better.

By bravely standing up and admitting a mistake or error happened, you show leadership.

I learned this from Dale Carnegie’s leadership classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People:

“Say about yourself all the derogatory things you know the other person is thinking or wants to say or intends to say – and say them before that person has a chance to say them.

The chances are a hundred to one that a generous, forgiving attitude will be taken and your mistakes will be minimized.”

It may seem counter-intuitive at first, but if you try it, you will be amazed at how well it works.

Caution: You win and lose as a team

Do not throw any team members under the bus. Stick to we’s and group/company wide acceptance of responsibility. Emotions will be running high as your engineering team works hard to fix it, so the last thing you want to do is to pile on more stress or frustration by calling them out.

And even if say a now-fired engineer deleted a database, or someone made a big error, your company still bears the responsibility; your company hired the wrong person, or failed to have effective safeguards to prevent such an incident. Finger pointing gets you nowhere.

Importantly, by calling yourself out, you save your customers from having to. This can prevent many angry tweets, or a large, public outcry.

Best of all, when you do self-deprecate over an issue, as Dale Carnegie teaches, there’s really only one thing left for them to do: be magnanimous and forgive you. “Oh it wasn’t *that* bad. I’ll live.”

we have a plan

3) Talk about what you’re doing about it

This is a great excuse to work with your engineering team to understand the technical side of your product better. When they’re not in full crisis mode, or they take a break, sit down with someone on the team to get a layman’s term explanation of what happened.

From there, you convey however much you and the team are comfortable stating about what happened, and then most importantly, you look to the future on what you’re doing about it.

You see this a lot in the world of engineering products. They’ll actively tweet out about an issue and then even share the post mortem publicly for other engineers to see what they learned.

While that may be overkill or not relevant to your market, explaining what you’re doing to prevent the issue going forward definitely is important.  Doing so builds confidence that this will be an isolated incident, or you can warn them, “We’re making this fix now, and a broader fix will take X weeks, so let us know if you experience issues in the coming days.”

This is the best way to end your note to customers about your product crisis.

 

Putting it all together.

Here’s an example note I sent to customers in 2017 when we accidentally emailed people 7 prep emails in the morning for each of their 1 on 1s that day. For some people that meant a busy day of 1 on 1s caused them to be sent 50+ emails in just a few minutes.

example product apology note

Now, this isn’t the biggest failure ever, but it was an opportunity to set the standard we own up to mistakes they’ll certainly notice.

And the response was exactly as we hoped:

apology note response example 1 apology note response example 1

Our response looked personal, but with a little planning, it was all automated and totally scalable to the size of that issue and others like it.

You can see a similar message here:

 

The bigger the issue, the more the detail you’d put in the note, and the more you’d be self-deprecating. Use your best judgement and fit the culture of your company for how to specifically frame it.

Update! Buffer has a fantastic example of this with a recent issue:

 

 

 

 

I also like a couple things extra they did here:

In addition to covering the basics we outlined in this post, there’s a couple extra things that the note does that are worth calling out:

  1. It’s from the CTO: Showing this issue was given attention all the way to the top of the organization.
  2. They thanked their customers: When someone helps out, it’s always good to thank them for their contribution.
  3. Reinforce behavior you want: By continually setting an example and stating how they like their customers to act, it helps reinforce customers should behave that way. This is why it’s better to say, “Thanks for your patience” instead of “Sorry for bugging you.”

Note: This is not a silver bullet.

In the end, this approach will buy you time and earn some good will. It helps you be a part of the solution with your team and sets a good precedent for communicating with your customer transparently about issues.

However, much like in baseball, “3 strikes you’re out.”

If this happens too often, no amount of well crafted apologies will save you.

You have to fix the issue and do better going forward, and then it will be a distant memory in your customers mind, and you can get back to making more awesome stuff.

How has your product team handle crises? Would love to hear your stories of what’s worked in the comments.

 


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