Manage the Experience Gap During Downtime

If you have been following Internet news lately or you’ve tried to visit,, or to make a purchase, you probably already know all three sites were down periodically during the last few weeks to prepare for the upcoming holiday season.

The sites were taken down on August 24 — at the height of a back-to-school shopping season with the highest gasoline prices in recent memory. At my company, we noticed and started a lively internal dialogue. We addressed obvious issues about lost revenue but were more interested in the way the three brands communicated the outage with their customers. We found two messages, “Under Construction” and “Store Closed,” posted in the place of during the transition. Both were straightforward messages but not nearly as hip or friendly as the Gap brand itself.

Customer Reaction

After two weeks of downtime, in an era of server reliability and high customer expectations around “always open” Internet shopping, most customers probably visited multiple times. Reactions most likely ranged from a shrug to frustration. Some might have decided to visit the physical stores or another online destination.

A customer quote in a “San Francisco Chronicle” article underscores the point: “‘I just felt stymied,’ said the 33-year-old Storch, who is shopping for more items on the Internet while on maternity leave with her one-month-old son. ‘I thought most Web sites only shut down during the middle of the night.'”

The incident puzzled us as well. The Gap is well known for smart, innovative marketing and is a top-of-mind leader in the online retail space. Was it experimenting with a new way to generate buzz about its site enhancements? Did it think the downtime would pass under the industry — or customer — radar?

Maintain a Customer Relationship When You’re Down

We all struggle with planned and unplanned site outages. Thankfully, most customers understand sites can go down periodically for maintenance and enhancements. A few thoughts for when you must take a site down:

  • Set expectations. If you’re down, let people know when they can come back to shop. Think of it like this: instead of finding a neighborhood store mysteriously closed during business hours, you’re thankful to see a sign on the door that says, “Gone to lunch. Back at 12:30 p.m.”
  • Stick to your timeline. When you say your site will be back up by 9 a.m. on Tuesday, it had better be back up by then. Otherwise, you risk eroding customers’ trust in your brand.
  • Offer a peek into the improved site experience. We often encourage clients to create a brief demo area on the current site to give customers a taste of the coming improvements. The brand communicates that enhancements are coming without jeopardizing the current site experience or losing revenue.
  • Warn customers. If a road will be closed for construction, signs are often up at least a few days before, warning drivers. Extend this courtesy to the online space. A simple email or notice on your site keeping customers informed will be appreciated.
  • Reward customers for their patience. If a site is down unexpectedly or for an extended period, reward customers for their patience and loyalty with discounts.
  • Provide an abbreviated catalog. Provide a small subset of your best-selling items to customers during the transition phase. Even if you can’t make your full product line available, customers will appreciate the option and your consideration of their needs.

In a perfect world, sites would never go down. But that world doesn’t exist. Make the transition between sites as seamless as possible, and turn a potentially frustrating experience into a positive one for customers.

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