Recently while returning from vacation, I spent way too much time waiting in a long line filled with grumbling airline customers — myself included. As my wait grew past 90 minutes, I distracted myself by playing the mental game of how the airline could improve the situation. Since this was a delay caused by weather, it really wasn’t the fault of the airline. However, in my opinion, they could have scored points with dissatisfied and angry customers with better communication. Communication is often the most important factor when bad things happen to relatively good companies. When communication is handled well, it can be the differentiator in how a customer remembers the event.
In my opinion, a well-executed incident communication plan has five fundamental elements:
1. Acknowledge and reassure.
Don’t shy away from communication because you don’t have all the details at first. Let the customer know as quickly as possible what you do know and what you are doing about it. Reassure them that the right people are engaged and resolution is their top priority
2. Establish expectations.
Some customers only want updates when a situation is resolved; others prefer updates at a stated frequency. Find out which approach works best for your customers, as that helps them feel in control. Don’t forget to set expectations for your internal groups working toward resolution of the issue. They need to know what update frequency they need to deliver to you.
3. Keep your word.
Whether you have something new to report or not, meet your commitment to deliver updates. Nothing can turn a situation from bad to worse faster than avoiding conversation simply because you have nothing new to report.
4. Deliver updates that are simple, easy to understand and honest.
Don’t sugarcoat the situation or bury a customer in lengthy, overly complicated details. If you are still diagnosing the problem, don’t fake it. If you are contemplating various alternatives, share enough of the details if possible so the customer knows that multiple options are being explored to resolve the issue.
5. Make it right when it’s over.
That may be as simple as an apology and a statement regarding what you are putting in place to avoid the situation in the future. Closing the loop on the situation gives you one last opportunity to differentiate yourself during a challenge.
A customer once said to me in a difficult situation, “I’m not a mushroom. I don’t like being kept in the dark.” That quote has always stuck with me and validates the value of the five-step approach.
So, how did the airline delay turn out? I missed my connecting leg and was offered a flight two days later. So, I took the situation into my own hands and rented a car then drove 10 hours to my final destination. It was not a good travel experience but it was a good reminder to me as a service provider.