The Importance of Being Earnest (With Customers)

  |  May 5, 2006   |  Comments

Stuff happens. Are you prepared for it?

Companies spend so much time covering their own tracks, they sometimes forget about what's important to the consumer. It seemed as if anything that could break, did over the last week. In the midst of crazy client work and heavy deadlines, my father (for whom I act as the go-to for tech problems) told me his domain was down, along with all his office's email accounts. Obviously, this is crippling for any organization. We decided the problem was that his credit card expiration date had changed and he never informed the hosting company, so he was unceremoniously shut off.

We made frantic calls to the bank to approve any charges and emailed the hosting provider's billing people, along with technical support, asking them to please turn the domain back on. The company doesn't have a technical support phone number (not a mistake I'll make again when choosing a hosting provider).

Then, we waited.

The entire day went by with no email back from the hosting provider. Finally, after I sent two more messages (as did my father), we got a response. It turns out the company had massive server crashes and was in the process of recovering from them. It had nothing to do with billing problems.

It's the Information Age, Dummy

What makes this the information age is, well, information. We had no idea what was wrong. A better company would have emailed the technical contacts (or called, if its email was affected) to inform them of the problem. It wouldn't provide reactive service, that is, responding to complaints; but proactive service, informing people what's going on, why it's happening, and what's being done to resolve it.

Before we got the email telling us there was a server crash, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I set my father up with a new hosting provider and redirected all email to the new server so his business wasn't reliant on whether the old servers recovered.

His company is now humming along as usual, while, under the covers, his email Web hosting provider is different.

I checked out the new provider's Webmail functionality today. Frankly, it's not as nice as the old provider's service, and it's a little slower. My dad's office uses Outlook, so Webmail functionality isn't that important. Even if it were, I'd keep the current service.


When I received the email from the old hosting service explaining what was happening (1.5 days after I sent the first urgent email to tech support), I was on the phone with the new service provider because it called me to thank me for joining and to ask if I had any questions. In the five years I'd been with the other provider, I never once spoke to a live person, as it doesn't publish a phone number.

Shoot the Messenger, Please

What lessons can we learn here? For this column's purposes, the first lesson is about the importance of telling customers what's going on. Be up front and honest. Be proactive. Had the old provider told us immediately what was going on and what was being done to resolve it, we wouldn't have gone as crazy as we did. Moreover, it could have made it seem as if we were on the same side, trying to get the problem fixed together. It didn't. Instead, it forgot to tell affected users what was going on. Then it provided little or no information, and certainly no updates, to even tell us if the service was back on.

When things go wrong, it's time to prove your value. No one really cares when everything's fine. But when something goes wrong, you're immediately judged on how you react to the situation. If you're earnest and up front and open a clear line of communication with customers, you're handling the situation correctly. This matters more than the problem itself in most cases. "Stuff" happens. Servers crash, data gets erased. It's par for the course and happens to everyone, eventually. Customers can be understanding, given the opportunity.

Of course, you must make reparations after the fact to outweigh the inconveniences of whatever happened, but that's step two and a different column altogether.

Thoughts, comments, or questions? Let me know!

Until next time...


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Jack Aaronson

Jack Aaronson, CEO of The Aaronson Group and corporate lecturer, is a sought-after expert on enhanced user experiences, customer conversion, retention, and loyalty. If only a small percentage of people who arrive at your home page transact with your company (and even fewer return to transact again), Jack and his company can help. He also publishes a newsletter about multichannel marketing, personalization, user experience, and other related issues. He has keynoted most major marketing conferences around the world and regularly speaks at and other major industry shows. You can learn more about Jack through his LinkedIn profile.

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