Dr. Mary Mason, MBA ~ Leadership Speaker & Consultant

Crisis Management 101

Crisis Management 101

After being caught up in the Southwest holiday cancellation debacle, I experienced firsthand how important it is for a company to be ready to act when the unexpected happens. Just like hospitals doing disaster training for medical emergencies, an organization must always have an active plan for those moments that can be triggered immediately when a crisis strikes.

Crisis management is a function that often gets overlooked by companies, both big and small. However, it can be the make-or-break moment for businesses and the difference between customers feeling like they were valued, and that the business did their best or saying they’re never going to be a customer again.

As an impacted Southwest customer watching the crisis unfold in the days before Christmas, I saw many missed opportunities for the airline at the ticket counter, in baggage claim, on the phone lines and in the terminal where stranded travelers were camped out. Reflecting on my experience, there are many lessons to be learned for the business world.

Here are some considerations businesses should take when creating and executing a crisis management plan.

1. Don’t be cheap.

This is the time to get out the rainy-day budget and offer some extra perks to your impacted customers. While no-questions-asked refunds should be a given, think of what else you can do to make the experience more bearable for your customers.

In the Southwest case, for example, it would have been nice to bring in bottled water, catered food or cots for the displaced, weary travelers at the beginning of the crisis—not a few days later after local TV stations documented the chaos. It may have taken a bit of effort and expense, but it would have gone a long way toward making customers feel a bit better about having to sleep on the floor of the airport.

2. Be honest and don’t withhold information from customers.

Customers understand that some circumstances are beyond a business’s control. But great frustration on the customer side occurs when they are left in the dark about what’s happening. A good crisis plan should always have a ready-to-go communication checklist. While the last thing a holiday traveler wants to hear is that their flight is canceled due to staffing issues, knowing that information before wasting half a day at the airport is far better than finding out at boarding time.

Executives also need to think through who delivers the bad news, as you don’t want the frontline staff to be subjected to a “killing the messenger” mentality by disgruntled customers.

3. Give customers access to those who can help.

Having an open, accessible line of communication is critical for impacted customers. Nothing makes a customer feel more undervalued than getting a busy signal or being subjected to hours of hold time on the customer service line.

Set up an emergency call center with experienced agents or employees who can deal with the excessive volume of calls from customers. Another option is to test your online self-service tools so customers can try to address their issues themselves.

4. Appoint a crisis team and leader who can take charge.

When a business function breaks down, the most important action is to activate the team and leadership in charge when you enter “crisis mode.” In a mid to large company, this should be a dedicated team that is accountable for setting the wheels of the crisis plan into motion. This frees up the executive team to think strategically about the next steps, not the operational details of the crisis. Impacted customers are savvy. They can tell when a company is making up responses as they go versus a sophisticated company that has a well-thought-out and well-executed crisis plan.

5. Management needs to be present and have boots on the ground in a crisis.

During a crisis, business leaders need to be present and lead. It doesn’t matter if it is the holidays or if you have already put in your hours for the day. Not only is it important to have all hands-on deck during a business disaster, but it also is important for frontline staff and customers alike to know there is someone there who can make decisions if needed.

In the business world, things do not always go the way you plan, and the unexpected can happen. While a business cannot be faulted for circumstances beyond its control, it is responsible for handling these unexpected scenarios and events. Not having a crisis plan that can be set into motion quickly and efficiently can cost a company its reputation and future business. And that is a crisis that no business wants to face.

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