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How to apologize for server outages and keep users happy

Nobody panic: The servers are down. How IT communicates an issue often means more to users than resolution speed. An admission of struggle is more forgivable than silence.

Sorry, all systems are down; no ETA on recovery.

Neither the IT department responsible for those systems, nor end users, want to see this message. Even if the failure is out of IT's control, saying sorry alone is not how to apologize for server outages.

The working paradigm changed drastically in 2020: Remote work is now the norm, rather than an exception; almost everyone around the world has had to adapt and perform some work outside of the office -- if they weren't doing so already.

Productive communication with users begins with straightforward and clear messages. An automated IT incident management system leads to quicker action and a more detailed overview of what occurs in the IT environment -- particularly outages.

However you relay systems outages, there is an art to apologizing well. Help desk staff often bear the brunt of this challenge, even while the situation is often outside their control.

These guidelines detail how to apologize for server outages in a way that maintains an open dialogue to end users and minimizes their frustration.

The bones of a good apology

Apologies for the inconvenience has become an over-used phrase that means nothing. If this is the message you tack onto the end of outage communications, it doesn't help anyone. It's a long-winded version of sorry, which provides no help to anyone during, or after, an outage.

Instead, start with the three parts of an apology, as defined by psychologists:

Acknowledgement. Define what you're apologizing for. What was the outage? How long did it last? What was the scale of the issue -- was it worldwide? Own the problem and, if possible, communicate a root cause.

Empathy. State that the IT team recognizes the business effect of the outage -- and shares the frustration. This is especially true if the failure was due to a third-party issue, completely out of IT's control.

Resolution. Address what IT will do to avoid this outage in the future, as well as lessons learned. If the issue itself can't be fixed, are there any workarounds? If there are not, explain why. If there's action IT can take, provide an ETA for its execution. This estimation is useful in the event the issue repeats itself before a resolution.

What forms a meaningful apology

This information must coalesce in clear and brief communication; avoid jargon where possible. Give users faith that IT has the situation under control. However, tact must guide honesty: If the user doesn't trust you, it doesn't really matter what you say.

Address user frustration

Disgruntled users will share their frustrations with the first point of contact -- usually the help desk. But users aren't typically frustrated with the help desk admin themselves. Instead, they're annoyed with the IT system failure and the resulting loss of productivity. However, sometimes people get carried away.

Although it's not acceptable to receive abuse in any role -- always report it to management or Human Resources -- there are still irate callers to manage and a situation to resolve.

Disgruntled users will share their frustrations with the first point of contact -- usually the help desk.

For these callers, let them vent before you offer answers or apologies. It's tempting to cut people off because you have the answers, but give them a chance to be heard before moving on.

Once a user has expressed their frustrations, apply a similar approach to broader communication guidelines; empathize and validate users' irritation, and remind them that you're there to help. The help desk is on their side and wants to see them working happily again.

If a user complaint comes in after the server has been restored, rather than during the resolution process, reiterate what was already covered in your mass communication to the organization. From there, ask users if they want more information. Additionally, ask if they would like some suggestions for workarounds in the case of future issues. Explain that your goal is to reduce their inconvenience if the situation reoccurs. They might not be aware of options that seem obvious to IT; for example, Outlook is often still accessible through a web browser when there's an issue affecting the Outlook desktop app.

Outages are unavoidable and, often, completely out of a company's control. Empathize with users about the issue and clearly communicate the root cause, along with an action plan to avoid it in the future. All of these aspects are necessary to apologize for server outages meaningfully.

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