How to Prepare for a Customer Service Hurricane

Colorized photo of Hurricane Irene (NOAA/AP Photo via ABCNews)

As I write this, Hurricane Irene is churning its way up the East Coast. It’s hard to know whether it’s going to be a “historic storm” or just a big mess. Either way, it raises some questions about how you would handle a similar storm in your Customer Service business.

Storm Forecasts are Dire Because Forecasters Want you to take Action to Save Life and Property

Hurricane forecasting provides some valuable early warning information, along with a checklist of how to prepare, and a strategy for dealing with unforeseen situations. Your crisis plan for a Customer Service storm should be similar, including the following:

  1. What to do if you get a whole lot of requests at one time – it’s likely when you describe a problem as “a Hurricane” then it’s something that simply overwhelms your existing capacity. Whether you broadcast out simple information on multiple channels (like the New York MTA sharing information through Twitter and other channels.) or whether you simply give customers an easy way to understand what you can and can’t do during a “storm”, sharing information beforehand is a big win.
  2. How to triage unfamiliar and unforeseen consequences – the US Military teaches a doctrine called “commander’s intent” which states the objectives to be completed and the conditions to be created that will demonstrate mission success. You should be able to explain in simple terms (but no simpler) the parts of your business and your customer service mission that must persist even in the face of overwhelming demand or unusual circumstances.
  3. How to maintain your existing standards, and exceed them in a time of great strain – by the way, none of this is easy, which is why anyone would describe either the actual Hurricane Irene or an event that feels similar in your business. Maintaining those standards under duress is a mark of amazing service.
Customers will remember how you behave and how they’re treated, so a great model for how to behave is to remind them that you’re just like them. Use leaders like Newark Mayor Cory Booker as a model, who wrote today, “Just in from walking flood prone streets in the East. I’m soaked but had good conversations with residents about the storm and preparedness.”

Ride Out the Storm, and Use the Same Methods for Recovery

Politicians are ultimately in the Customer Service business, so watching how they ride out Hurricane Irene, demonstrate leadership and share information, and just go about their business should provide valuable lessons for any of us as we think about how we would deal with a similar storm in our business.
Good luck, Mr. Mayor.

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