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Incident communication best practices for happier users

Proper communication around an IT outage or incident can prevent chaos. Use these techniques -- at home and abroad -- to keep users well-informed.

Communication is difficult to get right. Using language to convey a simple and specific point is an art in itself. Poor communication can tank relationships -- but done properly, it enables people to comprehend a situation, which in turn makes everyone involved happier.

Poor communication often strains the relationship between IT and everyone else in a company. Some users want more details, some fewer, some don't care and some don't understand what was said. Communication is even more difficult in global organizations with offices across multiple geographic regions and countries. In a company setting, staff can feel embarrassed or stressed as they try to understand the language used in written instructions in an email.

Despite these challenges, there are incident communication best practices that can improve the messages IT teams send -- and how they send them. IT teams should:

  • send clear messages;
  • act promptly;
  • establish roles and responsibilities;
  • emphasize help desk communication skills; and
  • personalize updates, as necessary.

Take an in-depth look at each of these best practices to learn how to prevent user frustration during an IT outage.

Balance speed and transparency during IT outages

Systems will always break, and how IT admins inform users about those issues -- and keep them informed on the road to recovery -- is just as important as working to fix the problem. People don't like being kept in the dark, especially as they try to do their jobs.

Open communication channels. Time is of the essence. If IT teams use a website as the communication channel for outage updates, they need to keep the site as up to date as possible. For companies with a customer-facing product, social media is another option to relay messages -- if they have the resources to respond to users. However, do not only use social media to broadcast outages as users will become frustrated when they reach out to the account and receive no response. Instead, use a push-style notification system, such as email.

Don't spend half the message on an apology or justification for the outage.

Take immediate action. Prompt alerts that advise users of an outage are critical. Decide on a time window before you communicate information -- it could be five minutes, for example. If some systems are down, but it's unclear exactly what's affected, don't spend the next half hour working out what the situation is before you communicate it. Instead, bring users up to speed as early as possible. Send an accurate and clear message. This will reduce the number of support calls the IT team receives.

Control the information flow. Choose one IT staff member -- who is not working on a resolution to the problem -- to collate what's known and then send it out quickly. It's important to enforce separation between fixer and communicator, so each role can focus on their task and do it well. This distinction also provides assurance that someone can parse the problem and ensure others will understand it.

Set the tone. Another incident communication best practice is to keep updates short and sweet. Don't spend half the message on an apology or justification for the outage. Say clearly and concisely which systems are broken, who it might affect, if there's an estimated fix time and any applicable workarounds.

IT doesn't have to say why something is broken, but, if they choose to, it should be incredibly short, such as an explanation that it's a fault with the internet provider. Address further details in a post-mortem on the outage and provide it to anyone who needs or wants it.

Check out this mock email below to see what a well-crafted outage alert looks like -- and what one to avoid looks like.

Example of an incident communication email

Know the users. Finally, for multinational organizations, consider having someone in each region who can preview and localize messages. This step might not be necessary when IT teams first communicate an outage, but it could make a difference when users need detailed written instructions, for example.

Encourage conversations with help desk staff

Beyond outages, most IT-user communication occurs around the help desk, also called the support desk or service desk. These IT technicians are often undervalued for the skills necessary to perform their jobs well -- if they aren't good communicators, the entire business suffers.

Help desk communication skills must include adaptability to situations: Technicians need to read and understand quickly how people interact and apply the most appropriate form of communication to that scenario. For example, some users prefer emails over phone calls. And while the communication channel might seem like a minor decision, it's one that can create a positive or negative user experience.

Help desk staff's job is to reduce downtime as much as possible and ensure they resolve issues properly. But don't be afraid to ask users how they want the job handled. For example, do they just want the problem fixed for them, do they want to work through it together, or are they interested in learning why the incident happened the way it did?

Every business is different, so to take advantage of these incident communication best practices. Refine your approach with ideas from the IT team and engage with users. Find out how they want to receive alerts and how regularly. Ask for feedback on possible improvements or adjustments. After users see their suggestions put into practice, they might just decide they want less communication instead of more.

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