It’s no secret 2014 was a notable year for enterprise IT crises, and it’s safe to say 2015 will have its fair share of scares as well. Unfortunately, data breaches aren’t the half of it – system and service outages can be equally (if not more) devastating to enterprises. While major IT disruptions are damaging, preserving customer trust and confidence afterward is the next challenge organizations must perfect.

Maintaining trust from customers requires more than just a mea culpa. The stakes are high for customers with their personal data and information on the line, so transparent and proactive communication is key between businesses and their customers. Here's how to implement best practices for maintaining transparency and trust in the face of catastrophic service disruptions.

1. Proactively Assemble Your Communications Team

If businesses wait until after a problem surfaces to build a team, it will be too late. Have a pre-assigned team of professionals skilled in handling major issues such as data breaches or service outages. Also, make sure to include customer-facing communication professionals, technical liaisons, and legal advisers just in case legal investigations could take place post mortem. Establish procedures for swiftly contacting (via multiple devices, numbers, and communication modes) and assembling team members. Assume teams will need to communicate at the most inconvenient times, and you’ll be well prepared for crisis situations. Tip: If possible, use one-touch conference bridging capabilities to save hours of valuable time.

2. Keep Management Informed

Whether they are directly impacted by an IT disruption or they hear through today’s grapevine (social media), management teams need to know when crises occur so they can proactively communicate with high-value customers, partners, and press. Send executives messaging guidelines as updates roll in. Some organizations even use executives to proactively communicate through their social networks. Success requires a delicate balance of transparency without over-sharing, and companies that achieve it are leaps and bounds ahead of traditional silence.

3. Keep Customers Informed

As mentioned before, consumers are the most at risk when data breaches or service outages happen. If corporate communications are unclear or inadequate, customers will be the first ones on social media exercising their right of free speech and that can hurt a company’s reputation. To avoid this scenario, communicate with customers on multiple devices and platforms until the correct message is heard or seen. Silence is arguably even more damaging than the actual incident. While consumers want updates and assurances that you’re taking action, more innovative organizations turn the ‘lemon’ of an incident into ‘lemonade’ by creating an opportunity for customer satisfaction.

4. Keep Regulators Informed

Current and pending legislation worldwide demands that companies notify regulators of service outages and data breaches in a timely manner. As the old saying goes, “better safe than sorry.” For example, The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) guidelines require that financial institutions notify them “as soon as possible” and that procedures for these notifications be in place ahead of time. Like MAS, most current legislation contains ambiguous language around timing, and lacks direct penalties or fines. Still, with so many regulations being considered, it’s advisable to stay ahead of the curve in building rapid communication capabilities. Many regulating authorities require notification not only for institutions located in their areas, but also for all entities that control accounts or do business with their citizens and businesses. For global businesses, this could mean eventually needing to send notifications in a timely manner to dozens or hundreds of regulatory authorities simultaneously. Set up your communication processes ahead of time.

5. Confirm Delivery of Message to the Masses

Businesses have not satisfied their due diligence just because they “tried” to alert consumers of a data breach or service outage by sending a mass email. Contact information may be outdated, delivery may fail, or customers may deny getting messages if it helps their cause in issuing a future complaint. Prep in advance by keeping multiple contacts for customers, employees, and regulators. Utilize communication backup methods for undelivered responses and find alternate communication methods (for example, email is down with the service, so text messages or phone messages would be better). Ensure that any method of communication allows – or even requires – the recipient to acknowledge receipt of the message so there’s an audit trail of the activity.

6. Continue Talking about Actions You’re Taking

Circumstances can change quickly after consumer-facing service disruptions occur, so keep stakeholders informed through direct communications to reassure them that all steps are being taken to mitigate any damage. While formal, direct communications should be used sparingly, businesses should use social media channels like Twitter or Facebook messages (when appropriate) to be clear and send regular updates on the situation at hand – even if there’s no substantial news. This will help cut down on inbound inquiries and keep consumers in the loop.

7, Targeted Communications 

Data breaches and denial of service attacks happen because data falls into the wrong hands. After a crisis occurs, companies should target communications as necessary. Yes, transparency is essential to maintaining consumer trust, but an unnecessary amount of communication could be equally harmful. Publicizing information about crisis situations impacting business customers may violate confidentiality laws, and public messages for issues impacting a small number of customers can become overkill. Instead, target affected consumers or regulators when possible to prevent data leakage, reduce inquiries to the organization’s customer service teams, and avoid upsetting unaffected parties.

In today’s always-connected world, consumer-facing service disruptions are inevitable.  However, organizations can limit the devastation to their businesses by putting the proper communications in place to alert and keep customers informed during crises, and these seven tips will help get them off to a great start.

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