On September 10th, 2012, something went wrong with GoDaddy’s network. The technical details aren’t important, but understand that every service it provided, including the websites of millions of small businesses (and its own site), suddenly stopped working.
It was an instant social media crisis, and I ran the social customer care team. It was my team’s job to make people feel better about GoDaddy during a moment of total failure.
Dealing with complaints
We were used to customer complaints – every social media team is used to complaints – but there’s a distinct difference between dealing with problems you understand and those you don’t. When you understand the cause of a problem, you can take steps to resolve it, you can set expectations for the customer, you can identify opportunities for improvement and communicate them internally to improve the customer experience. When you don’t understand the problem and everyone who can help you is occupied trying to fix it, your options are significantly more limited.
In an ordinary complaint situation, there’s a clear process you can follow to address a customer’s concern:
Respond (quickly) to let her know you’re paying attention.
Empathize, ask questions, and collection any info you need.
Do whatever it takes to resolve the issue. This often means working with others to figure out the cause and do the fixing.
- Communicate some more
Tell the customer what’s going on and when she can expect things to be back to normal. Collect her feedback if she has suggestions for how you could be better.
- Close the loop
Confirm resolution, execute retention measures (refunds and the like), and ensure no other problems exist.
- Learn from your mistakes
Use her feedback (or identify your own) and report it to the appropriate people internally to avoid letting it happen again.
For bonus points, when you fix or change something that caused a longterm problem, like a software bug or an inconvenient policy, get back in touch to let her know the experience led to real change that will improve things for others.
Collectively, these actions tell the customers something incredibly important:
You’ve got their backs
They want to know you understand there’s a problem.
They need to believe you’re doing something about it.
They want to know when it’s fixed.
They want to know it won’t happen again.
They want to feel meaningful and valued.
This time, things were different
Here’s what I knew, or didn’t know, on September 10th:
- Everything was down.
- We didn’t have an explanation.
- We didn’t have an ETA.
- Every person with a keyboard was posting on Twitter and Facebook looking for answers we didn’t have.
- We didn’t have the manpower to respond to most of them.
So what do you do when it hits the fan and you have no answers?
Well, first you accept your limitations and understand you won’t be following the normal plan. Hopefully, if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll be honest with everyone else too.
Next, you buckle down and take control. There are some things you can do. Even though you can’t fix the problem, you can acknowledge it, empathize with everyone who’s struggling because of it, and maintain communication. Continuous communication is key because going silent will make people think you’ve abandoned them.
Silence = abandonment
[This, by the way, explains why inaction is the worst action of all. You should use it to sell your PR team on making a statement about something important when they don't want to. I don't know if they'll listen, but it's worth a shot.]
For me, continuous communication meant posting public updates every hour even if I didn’t have anything new to say. In the absence of a solution, at least I could demonstrate to people that we understood the severity of the issue and weren’t going anywhere. In between updates, I was working to scrounge up information for the next update, and my team was responding to as many individuals as they could. Here’s what the public updates looked like and what I hoped was being expressed with every little sentence:
Status Alert: Hey, all. We’re aware of the trouble people are having with our site. We’re working on it.
— GoDaddy (@GoDaddy) September 10, 2012
Acknowledgement. Step one. This was early on, before we could understand how big the problem really was and before I’d figured out how I wanted to handle it on my end. In retrospect, it didn’t properly express the scope of the problem or its urgency.
So many messages, can’t get to you all… Sorry to hear all your frustration. We’re working feverishly to resolve as soon as possible. — GoDaddy (@GoDaddy) September 10, 2012
No new information to share, but by saying we’re overwhelmed by the volume of messages, we show that we realize this is affecting a huge group and therefore a serious problem. We try to empathize by recognizing users’ frustration, though I question if it came off as truly sincere. The word “feverishly” says that everyone in the organization, especially the engineers, are taking it seriously and won’t quit until it’s fixed.
Update: Still working on it, but we’re making progress. Some service has already been restored. Stick with us.
— GoDaddy (@GoDaddy) September 10, 2012
We’re making progress. This establishes some degree of hope and, without giving an ETA, says that your site could be back up soon. I don’t have the specifics of what was happening at that point, but I suspect we started to hone in on the cause of the problem and how it might be fixed. Of course, I wouldn’t have said we were making progress if it wasn’t true because establishing false hope, aside from being completely evil, only serves to make people more angry when you don’t come through.
We’re continuing our work to get back on track. This is our #1 priority. We’ll keep posting updates here. Thanks for all the support. — GoDaddy (@GoDaddy) September 10, 2012
Translation: “We won’t quit because there’s nothing more important than getting your business back online. Also, some of you realize this is hard for us too, and that’s awesome.”
Update: More progress has been made. We’re still investigating and working, though.
— GoDaddy (@GoDaddy) September 10, 2012
At this point, some service has been restored, and people are seeing that, but that doesn’t help those who are still down. This is more hand holding since little has changed for them. I’m keeping my promise to continue posting updates, reinforcing we haven’t given up.
We’re still working. Getting closer to normal. Thanks for all your patience and understanding. — GoDaddy (@GoDaddy) September 10, 2012
More progress. I wish it could have been less vague, but you work with what you have which, unfortunately, wasn’t much.
Most customer hosted sites back online. We’re working out the last few kinks for our site & control centers. No customer data compromised.
— GoDaddy (@GoDaddy) September 11, 2012
This is essentially the ‘all clear’ message. There are still a few side effects for us to take care of, but the root cause of the problem has been identified and fixed. Also, there’s the all important security message at the end letting people know no data was compromised. I would have preferred to leave that out because it implies the issue was caused by a hacker rather than GoDaddy’s mistake, but some joker actually was claiming responsibility and getting lots of attention for it. It was important to allay those fears.
And that’s where I stopped. Normally, I’d say you should post a final “everything’s fixed” message, but because some relatively small issues persisted and the company was prepping an official response and there’s always a fear of relapse, I let it go. The truth is, we weren’t getting any more complaints, so it’s easy to rationalize not closing the loop, but best practice would be to post the final resolution message.
The takeaway from all this is understanding what your customers need from you and that, even in the most dire of situations, there’s always something you can do to reduce your customers’ stress and fear. I wanted to write that you could help ‘ease the pain’, but that’s not true. When people are losing money because you’ve failed to provide the service you said you would, your words won’t actually fix the problem. Thankfully, just knowing that, being honest about it, and holding their hands through the tough times can at least make them feel better, and that’s genuinely a good thing.
If you’re curious to learn a bit more about how GoDaddy handled the event, as a whole, you can read two mostly positive reactions here and here. Also, it’s important for me to say that my team was only a tiny part of it. After all, we didn’t have to fix anything. There were lots of very talented people doing very important work to fix the very serious problem, and I think the executive team did a pretty good job picking up the pieces afterward as well. The fact that no one really brings it up anymore is a testament to the fact that it was well managed.
If you have an opinion about how I handled this social media crisis or if you happen to have been affected by the outage and want to share your thoughts in the comments, I’d love to read them. Did you try contacting one of the Support teams, and how did you feel about the response? Did you talk about it in social media? How did the whole thing change your opinion of GoDaddy in general?