Crises happen when you least expect them – that’s what makes them crises: they catch you when your guard is down and when you’re not in the best place to deal with them.
Calm before the storm
Nick and I had been for a short break in Norfolk; the Gunton Arms if you know it. Beautiful location, amazing food, supremely relaxing. We wound our way home along the coast, the endless landscape of grazing marsh the perfect place to CTRL-ALT-DEL my brain.
Of course, my phone is never far away, and as we set off I’d had a brief exchange with my web developer who I’d asked to fix a minor problem. My web team is very responsive, and I was comforted by their usual efficiency. It was a simple fix they re-assured me. The problem was sorted they said, but one comment proved portentous. “All emails that were stuck are now sent… don’t know if it’s a good thing or bad.” I replied: “At least you have it working.”
We stopped at Cley for a stroll. I checked my emails. A sudden flurry. “I have just received about 20 emails from you Dawn; is everything alright?” Nick checked his phone. He’d received 24 emails all saying the same thing: “How did you get on with scuseme?” – the email sent to anyone a few days after they’ve made an enquiry. By now I’d got over 50 messages – some worried, a few angry, all perplexed.
The crisis unfolded over the next few hours. I had asked my developers that some follow-up emails which, for some reason, had not been sent out for three weeks, be released. They were, but unfortunately, a coding error caused every other follow-up email since scuseme’s inception to be resent as well – almost 20,000 of them, with some people getting over 200! They went out in waves. As soon as one batch had gone and I had thought that was it, another lot went out. And there was nothing we could do to stop them. “Computer says no”.
Rosie (my daughter) was handling a flurry of calls at home and presenting a highly professional face. And I was calling people like mad, though not wishing to make things worse by adding any more emails, however well-intentioned. There were a few angry people, but I was really touched that most people I spoke with were more worried about me and the business, fearing a virus or some malign Russian cyber-attack. In fact, it was simply human error.
Having not looked up from my phone the whole way back in the car (Nick was driving in case you wonder), but with nothing more I could do, we headed off to the Arts Cinema (our last chance for several months before it closed due to COVID) to get my head somewhere else. Tenet was the perfect antidote; so utterly baffling that I could not afford to concentrate on anything else.
The next day I was able to assess the situation and plan my strategy for handling the crisis. 19,993 emails were sent to over 250 people. And because as a business I invest time and effort with everyone who interacts with scuseme – customers, tradespeople, partners – only 23 people asked to be removed from the mailing list. The next three days were spent making contact with everyone to apologise and re-assure. Crisis over, I hope. But I’d learned a lot; here are my top lessons.
Communicate: Everyone who was impacted was contacted by call or email explaining what happened. It provided a good opportunity to reconnect with users of the platform.
Take ownership: Mistakes occur, it is important, to be honest, and open when problems occur. This is especially pertinent when your business stores personal information, however minimal. As a member of the ICO this is imperative.
Be timely: Let people know what happened at the earliest opportunity.
Be strategic: Carefully plan your next course of action and stick to it.
Be calm: Crisis in business happens. Don’t panic. Before you act, take time, step back, and assess the situation.
Find solutions: It was a simple coding problem and our web developers sorted out the problem and resolved it.
Create a crisis management plan: I have worked with these in the past at various roles in corporate communications. This experience has prompted me to have one in place for scuseme.
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Dawn Giesler, is the founder of scuseme Cambridge, an online marketplace that helps your family run smoothly. She has lived in Cambridge for over 20 years and offers advice based on her own experiences. For more information about all the services and tradespeople they recommend, visit scuseme
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