Service Outages — It’s All About the Response

As we come to rely more and more on web-based applications and services, we’ve all probably had an instance when our favorite experienced some sort of outage. While I think we are generally patient with brief hiccups and such, what would happen if a web service you relied on was down for 16 hours? How should the developers handle the situation?

In what has to be a developer’s worst nightmare, last week a “perfect storm” of events led to just that for task management service Toodledo. Thankfully, after what I am sure was a very long day for the Toodledo team, they were able to bring things back online and with no data loss.

As a user of Toodledo, I was impressed with the outstanding job they did not only recovering our data but for the way they communicated with us during what was really an unthinkable situation. Was it an inconvenience to be without the service? Absolutely it was. But in what really should be a case study in how to respond to such an experience, the folks at Toodledo provided frequent updates and explanations during the outage and a thorough debrief after the fact.

I suggest you take a few minutes to read through the 10 or so pages of user comments and responses to their explanation there. It is full of appreciation and understanding from users for being spoken to honestly and treated with respect. Rather than leaving in droves, more than a few people have suggested that they have upgraded from free to paid accounts because of the way that the situation was handled.

So what did they do right? Here are five steps on how to deal with your customers during (and after) a service outage.

  1. Give us a descriptive error page and lead us to a forum where you are discussing the issue. Let us know there is an issue and that you are actively working on resolving it, especially if it is above and beyond something brief or minor.
  2. Make updates regularly. We know that taking the time to write an update is keeping you from the actual “fixing” of things, but we’re scared about our stuff and want to know what is happening.
  3. When it’s fixed, tell us what happened. We’re probably still a bit angry and feeling inconvenienced but we’ve had “stuff” happen in our lives, too, and will likely empathize.  Keep in mind, we may not be as technical as you, so give us the details in terms we understand.  Keep the jargon to a minimum.
  4. Acknowledge that the outage was an inconvenience, and don’t minimize the effect it had on us. We use your service because it helps us and provides a benefit. When it is down, we lose that. I think that this is particularly important.
  5. Tell us what is being done to keep the issue from happening again.

Despite everyone’s best intentions and planning, outages are going to happen. How it is handled and how you respond to your customers will define our response.

What do you expect from a provider during or after an outage? Tell us in the comments about your experiences.