11 Communications Tips for a Business Crisis


Last year, one of my littles made a trip to the emergency room. Throughout 98% of the experience, I felt widely out of control; especially since my job as a deliverability specialist requires me to be the one with the answers or at least with the means to find the answers. But in the emergency room, I had no answers. I felt ill equipped to do anything and was fumbling for what questions to ask. It shook me, to say the least.

Why do I tell you this? Well, after we returned home and we settled back into the calm of our day-to-day, I came to the realization that regardless of the ordeal, a lot can go missing in our communications with one another during a crisis. I realized that I take for granted what it means to be the specialist, the one with the knowledge, the one that knows the roads to remediation and when roads less traveled should be explored.

It was humbling to realize what I went through may be similar to what clients experience during a deliverability crisis, in my case. It wasn’t fun; it was more frustrating than anything. So I sought to write about how communication could help change or at least better support both the person, here we’ll say client, seeking assistance and the expert, or specialist.

Granted, what we went through didn’t start from nothing and skyrocket to red alert. Our experience came in stages. It’s likely your path may be different, but I broke down the different ways you can use communication into stages so the right focus can be given at the right time.

Building communication around a crisis

In 2019, Washington State Department of Commerce posted Four Stages of a Crisis. It speaks about crisis planning so as you go through the process more and more your aim is to prevent a crisis from happening or have the tools to move through it to resolution as quickly as possible. In some ways, you can apply these stages to any crisis, personal or professional.

For the purpose of this article, I am focusing on the first three stages and the communication techniques that can be applied to better connect with your client and your client with you.

The Four Stages of a Crisis (according to the article) are:

  • Stage 1: Prodromal (Pre-Crisis): This is before the crisis and may include warning signs or alerts that actions may be needed.
  • Stage 2: Acute (Crisis): This IS the crisis and is where the majority of my tips will sit.
  • Stage 3: Chronic (Clean-Up): This stage is after the crisis but is still in the wake of it. Without resolution, a crisis can occur again. This is when the fallout from the crisis is addressed.
  • Stage 4: Crisis Resolution (Post-Crisis): This is the ideal place to be post-crisis as it involves not only a resolution, but prevention.

For the purpose of this article, I don’t have any ‘aha’ moments or tips for this stage. Ideally, the process to resolve the crisis will result in the learnings and steps needed to prevent the crisis from happening again.

Take the lead on communication

Disclaimer: I believe that communication is crucial for everyone involved, but I also believe the burden lies with the specialist to lead the communications. During an unexpected event, urgency is often the only language spoken and patience and communication is crucial.

If you are the specialist, the guidance comes from you. And you should drive and shoulder the load of the communication process to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Why? Because regardless of specialty, when someone is in a crisis, it’s unlikely and probably unfair to expect them to know what to say and do.

As you drive the process, remember communication should be often.

‘Often,’ oh what a vague measurement!

Let me be more specific. Communicate as often as your client wants. And what is that? Ask! A guessing game around how often to reach out ends up wasting time that can be spent elsewhere. Remember, you too will be busy working through the path to resolution.

And be the first one to follow up, even if you set expectations on communication schedules. Outside of being a sound philosophy for business etiquette, it’s a skill that builds trust. During a crisis, your client’s concerns don’t fall away while they wait for an answer or work on something else. They linger.

Most importantly, communicating often provides emotional support and it is a clear indication that you haven’t forgotten them, and their issue is just as important to you as it is to them.

And so we move on to the 11 tips that can be used to help guide how you communicate so you can both move towards a successful outcome.

Pre-Crisis (Stage 1)

Back to my experience with my child. A week leading up to the hospital visit we were speaking to our doctor about what was happening and what to do next. So, in my head, I was convinced I would be that calm mom. The one who was informed and could react quickly without missing a beat. When it came time to go, it was still jarring, but at least I had a list of things to pack from the doctor.

And something as simple as packing snacks, well…it was worth the weight of my car in gold. That golden suggestion came from experience, and not the parent-to-parent experience, but the doctor-to-parent experience.

What I hadn’t realized is that an ER visit isn’t always filled with quick decisions or expedient tests. It can be a painfully slow experience. With a packing list coming from an experienced mind, we were prepared with goodies when we missed the dinner rush.

Although you may not be able to foresee a crisis to plan preventative steps or the path to resolution, all preparation is helpful. Here are three communication steps you can take today to discuss the likelihood of and prepare for a crisis

1. Introduce the idea of a crisis

You don’t have to be in a crisis to talk about it or keep up to date on what is happening in the industry. Start with a conversation about who to contact and what next steps would look like.

If you are lucky enough to have a specialist on hand, stay in touch and keep them up to date on what is happening in your business. That way, should something happen, you don’t have to start from the beginning as you lay the foundation of what is happening.

As a specialist, get an understanding of how your client is operating. Identify the potential crises that could occur and share them with your client so they are not only clear on the potential impact, but what everyone’s roles will be.

Then, if something does happen, everyone will be better prepared. It will give you both a baseline to jump from so your time can be spent jumping right into identifying the cause and next steps. 

2. Provide definitions to clear uncertainty

Words can be scary. Even if they aren’t meant to be, they can carry a weight of uncertainty and trepidation if they aren’t defined. Regardless of if the words should convey their meaning on their own, defining what they mean and what they impact can temper any assumptions about the realities around a fix and if it’s treatable or terminal.

Words also create interpretation gaps. A single word or an acronym can mean something completely different from one company to the next. How we use words within a company becomes ingrained in our day-to-day. So although it may seem redundant, define as much as possible to remove assumptions. And when reviewing a topic or process, explain it in at least two unique ways so that you are forced to use different words and round out what the true meaning is.

3. Practice empathy

As a specialist, it’s easy to downplay the scenario (I’m guilty of this) and the stress the sender may be feeling because you know the process and you understand all of the elements and what is to come.  Expectations are set.

However, for someone new to the field or the issue, a stoppage can be overwhelming. In addition, your clients have a lot of other people they have to answer to, which you may not be privy to. There are often more stakeholders involved than you may realize, many of which are not only expecting performance to continue but are relying on it to accomplish their own initiatives.

Stakeholders could be: 

  • direct management
  • upper management
  • individual and company KPIs
  • third-party partners
  • vendors relying on meeting performance metrics
  • and lest we forget, the end customer. 

More often than not, the conversation is not just between the specialist and the client, but between the specialist, the client, and their stakeholders — even if the stakeholders aren’t on the call. Which means your client may be having double the conversations on their end while you develop the remediation plan.

Empathy goes a long way, especially when the conversations get tough. It secures trust that a resolution will be found, and that you are there for them from beginning to end. The last thing you want your customer worrying about is if you both are able to do your job.

Crisis (Stage 2)

As my little and I officially entered into our own crisis, one thing was clear: as much as I thought I was prepared, I was not. I realized I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen, when, how long it would take, or half of what was being explained to me. Plus my own personal stakeholder was asking me questions I didn't have answers to and they needed extra support from me.

Needless to say, my mind was not 100% focused on the words that were coming out of the doctor’s mouth and what I did hear was often interpreted in the whirl of my own emotion and my kid’s (although my kid was way more put together than I was.)

Once you, as the specialist, are brought in focus, attention to detail, clarity, and patience are skills that can help you move your client through the crisis. Even if it takes a little more time.

As a client, at least from my own experience, focus, attention to detail, clarity, and patience are well and good, but it can be more of a challenge to execute in the moment. However, it is crucial to make sure your specialist has what they need so they can be as thorough and efficient as they can to get the job done. While you are navigating the crisis, keep these 6 tips in mind.

4. Clear expectations ease the unknowns

As a specialist, you may have already done this during the ‘pre-crisis’ conversation, but not all crises can be prepared for. And even if you already have done this, it’s good to do it again.

Define the process, your role in it, and your client’s role. Be specific and provide clear documentation and checklists of what is needed by each party and by when. Walk them through what will be done from start to finish.

If testing is needed, take them through the testing process, which can be lengthy and repetitive. Explain what you are looking for and what happens after you get the results. Will there be more testing, a change, a solution?

Try not to rattle off steps from memory (even though I’ve done this.) Instead, go through the process and document every step, be meticulous with what you document. The familiar often get forgotten. Then when it’s documented, review it with your client.

This level of detail, although it can be timely upfront, will not only help you work together effectively, but it builds trust. Try to answer the why before they ask, even if they don’t ask it. Clarify that there may be times, for example, when it seems like there is no movement, but in reality the limbo state is actually bustling with conversations, research, and action.

Also, take them through your thought process, even if you are still thinking about it. Providing a solution can be very rewarding, but it can be jarring for your client if they don’t understand how you arrived at the solution.

 5. Timing needs a number and not a word

In the process of remediating an issue, tasks are handed out. When each task can be accomplished will vary based on the complexity and how many people need to get involved. In some cases, there are dependencies that require one task to be completed before the next can begin. Because of this, timing is an important factor in how well the remediation plan is coordinated.

Quantify everything. Speak in absolutes. Vague definitions and timelines, like “soon” will only create more angst, especially when the expectations on when something should come don’t meet the reality. Create a timeline and let them know it can change, but don’t generalize timing with words like ‘ASAP’ or ‘often’ (gasp, I did this already!)

Setting expectations using definitive values keeps everyone focused on their tasks. Otherwise you may find time is spent addressing status updates instead of on the resolution.

6. Repeat for memory. Repeat for understanding.

Repetition is key in helping the mind learn. When you start getting into unfamiliar territory, repetition is important for retention, but also for understanding. Add to that a stressful situation and repetition becomes even more important. Stress has a way of hindering the brain from absorbing everything.

Regardless of your role, you will likely be sorting through a lot of information. Repetition will:

  1. Keep the memory fresh with the most current information. Often something small changes, but we neglect to bring it up. Repeating the questions helps to make sure all information is as up-to-date as possible.
  2. Give the opportunity to revisit a discussion and dive in deeper. When you cover and share a lot of information, details can be lost. Even with the most detailed notes, some conversations can get so in-depth that key details are forgotten or left out.

Ever get off the phone and find yourself saying, “OH, I forgot to mention that!”? You can follow up with that when you have your update or otherwise.

As you work through each step, repeat what you’ve done, repeat what you are doing, repeat what is needed from everyone, and repeat next steps. And reputation should also include questions asked. That’s not to inject doubt, but to give the opportunity to call out something that was missed. Or sometimes questions are asked from a new angle to see if elicits new information that can help.

And try to repeat in new ways to update those that may have missed the last communication or for those that digest information differently. I’m a visual learner. So someone could explain how to build a cabinet to me and I would get the gist of it. I may even be able to start, but I probably would end up building a busted box. If however, they gave me an image, I might actually end up building a functioning cabinet.

By discussing the topic in multiple ways, you are giving everyone the chance to process the information in a way they can understand so they can act on their items correctly.

7. Patience leads to insight

As a client in crisis, your specialist may ask you a LOT of questions. Be patient with these questions and answer all of them, even if they seem intuitive, redundant, unrelated, or trivial. Only you have the wealth of knowledge of what has been done and what has changed, including all the little nuances that someone outside of your team may never notice—something as small as “Oh and I did add in an extra segment, but they’re highly engaged so I didn’t think it mattered.”

For some, an issue at hand may not follow a static equation that can be solved with a few inputs. It may be dynamic and ever evolving. What works today may not work tomorrow. Specialists are often watching not only your business, but all of their clients. They watch for trends and what is happening, and what is and isn’t working in the industry.

They often have a checklist of questions to cover as many scenarios as they can so they can reduce the number of times they need to come back and ask additional questions. Rushing through the exploratory phase may result in missing key information needed to pinpoint the issues(s) and craft the right strategy for remediation.

8. Transparency

This is one step that is good for everyone to practice.

Honesty is crucial to a timely and successful resolution. Otherwise you’ll spin wheels working through scenarios that aren’t moving the issue resolution forward. In most cases, what isn’t revealed will be revealed at some point. It behooves you to be up front from the get-go.

Being transparent allows you to open up the door to additional details you may not have seen, what was done and why (especially if the why was dictated by a prior employee).

9. Detail, detail, detail

When answering questions, running research activities, asking questions, and providing answers, be specific. Add in numbers, specific days, targeting definitions, list source details, length of time, etc.

This all goes into what was in progress and what changed that led to an issue.  One change can cause an issue or perhaps it was the result of many changes. The detail helps you both figure out where to focus and drill into.

And don’t forget the past. This can be a key factor in identifying an issue. In my world, although some strategies can change performance overnight, often it’s a small change or a series of changes that build over time and manifest in a single day. Collecting a history of actions over time is a way to help flush out the issue.

The Crisis Takeaway (Stage 3)

My little and I were home, home at last! This is the time we started to breathe easier. Did we have a full-blown answer and ‘solution?’ No, but we addressed what we needed to and ruled out anything bad (thank goodness!). However, there was still some work to do to make sure we kept on top of everything, tracked changes, stayed in touch, and had a plan should things change.

As the crisis is taken care of, it doesn’t always just disappear. There is often some fallout that comes from it. Next steps, procedures, and the goal to work towards a place where you are in protection and prevention mode. Once you’re there, communication likely becomes more of a “Oh, hey! How are things going? Been a while since we spoke.” But before you get there, while you are in reflection mode and wrapping up, keep these 2 tips in mind.

10. Summarize and plan for what was done well and what you can look for

When all is said and done, wrap up the crisis in a summary document and detail:

  • What lead to the crisis
  • Information that was collected
  • Timelines
  • Steps to resolution
  • Resolution
  • Ongoing prevention

This is where you start to fall into the final Crisis Resolution Stage. However, until you can ensure your client’s overall program is secure and there are lasting steps in place, document what happened so it can be referenced later, especially if there is a recurrence or if team members get swapped, etc.

Just because history has a way of repeating itself, doesn’t mean we need to make it easy for it to do so.

11. Level set

Some labyrinths can be solved and some can’t. And some can be solved only to be rebuilt with more complexity and riddles. It’s important to level set with each other on what was successful and what the pain points are to create a lasting resolution.

In most of the deliverability cases I’ve had that lead to a crisis, like a Spamhaus listing, it was enough to move the needle to make a systemic change to how my client’s worked. Those that couldn’t make the change, either found no resolution or found themselves in the same situation down the road.

Why? Because old habits die hard.

When you are in discussions looking back at the crisis, lay the foundation of what further damage could be done if protections aren’t in place both from the specialist to the client and the client to their internal stakeholders.

Communication is a puzzle. It’s multi-faceted with many pieces and it takes time and patience to put together. When it’s done, you are left with a better picture than you started with

The next time you approach a client in a crisis and on the brink of disaster, try to remember what it was like learning something new, experiencing a crisis of your own, or dealing with a mistake you’ve made. Think about what made it easier for you to learn and emotionally cope. It will help you adjust your communication strategy, which is one of the most valuable resolution skills you can give to your client.

Editor's Note: Jennifer will be leading a discussion on this post at the Only Influencers (OI) Members-only Zoom on Thursday, September 22, 2022, at 12:00 Noon ET.

Not a member? Guest passes are first-come, first-served -- request one from Jeanne Jennings, GM of OI. 

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