Every site crashes. What to say to customers when it happens to you.

A few weeks ago, I needed some groceries. I hadn't shopped at Waitrose for a while, and I remembered they'd emailed me recently about a new 'pick your own offers' campaign. I decided to give them another try. (This marketing stuff works, you know.)

But when I got to their site, they were closed. Cheerfully ignoring the idea that online shopping is a 24-hour activity, they'd put the shutters up. And it wasn't 1 am on a Sunday, either. It was Friday lunchtime.

Obviously, they hadn't just shut up shop. Most customers could guess the reason for this message was some kind of technical meltdown. So why didn't Waitrose just say so, instead of pussyfooting around with "improving our website"? (I guess bringing your site back from the dead counts as an improvement. But it's not usually how we describe such things.)

We all know a major system crash is kind of a pain for business and customer alike. But shit happens. No need to be coy. We understand that servers go down, databases crash, some bloke drills through the network cable. We can be sympathetic. (Unless you're a bank, obviously, and it's your ATMs that have gone. Whereupon there will be a national outcry in the media.)

In the best of all possible worlds, your site will never go down. But this isn't that world. I've seen my clients suffer system failures due to fires in the server room, snip-happy telephone engineers, and people needing to plug in a vacuum cleaner. When that time comes for your business, do you know what your customers will see?

If you aren't sure, maybe now would be a good time to check. I suggest you make sure it includes the following things:

  • You know about the problem
  • You are doing something about it
  • When you think you might be back up - if you know it's going to be days rather than hours, say so.
  • What customers can do to get what they need in the meantime: phone numbers, contact email… (Credit where due: Waitrose get this right)

If you can set it up so that a basic message comes up the minute the site goes down, that's great. But in any case, it's good to have words ready for your tech folks the minute they need them. An emergency is no time to be crafting tactful error messages.