What happens when a SaaS outage strikes?

When Marketo were unlucky enough to have an outage earlier this week, it got me thinking about how SaaS outages are handled. It’s not a case of if, but when – even the best SaaS companies experience them.

Take a moment and imagine that your SaaS (/ Paas/ IaaS) product just had a major failure. Not a 1-second outage, not a 10-second outage, but multiple minutes-long. Perhaps even multiple hours.

It’s not good – in fact, it’s a nightmare situation for any SaaS business. Stressed tech staff, anxious execs, cranky sales and marketing people – and disappointed, frustrated and perhaps even angry customers.

How prepared is your business to handle a SaaS outage from a comms perspective? I’m sure you have plans for your your tech team – but what about marketing? Could you proactively handle the necessary customer communications at the drop of a hat?

When your service or platform suddenly stops working, what can marketers do to help?

1. Kick off the internal comms
In an emergency situation, even the calmest of people tend to lose their cool. People who are usually super collaborative will adopt bunker mindsets, fail to communicate, and ultimately slow down the process of finding and implementing a solution. So getting everyone together is critical.

Ideally, you’d have already created and agreed a plan to manage emergency comms in the event of a SaaS outage: who does what, and when, and what happens next. The major advantage of having a plan in place is that it’s much quicker to put into action – no lengthy signoff, no questions about channels, no confusion over roles and responsibilities.

Whether or not you have a plan, you’ll still need to tell your team what’s happening, who’s doing what, and how they can help. Make it quick and to the point – and provide clear internal touchpoints for questions or concerns.

2. Make sure your customers know what’s happening
If your customers are impacted in any way, you need to let them know. The more integral your system is to their business, the more important it is that you communicate with your customers promptly.

And by promptly, I mean pretty much immediately.

Some of your customers will already have noticed; some won’t. The important thing is that you’re up front with everyone. No one’s going to be happy about the outage, but transparency and clear comms create a sense of trust.

What will you tell them? As much as you can – that there’s an issue, you’re working on it, how long you estimate it may take to fix, when you’ll update them next, and how to get in touch with you in the meantime. Again, if you have a statement or framework prepared that you can work from, it’ll be quicker to get this message out.

How you’ll let your customers know about the outage will depend somewhat on who your customer is. Consider:

  • A statement on your website – not hidden away somewhere obscure, but somewhere anxious customers will easily find it.
  • A post on social media channels where you interact with customers – probably Twitter & Facebook at a minimum. Post both from your corporate account, as well as any accounts dedicated to customer service/ success.
  • An email to your customers.
  • For larger clients, a phone call from their account manager.
  • It’s also worth noting that if your SaaS product is CRM or messaging related, your outage may affect your own ability to communicate with customers. In these cases, you need to have separate backup systems for emergency communications.

    3. Prep your team for inbound enquiries & monitor reactions
    Enquiries will come in, and you need to prep your customer-facing teams to respond to them promptly, and with the correct information. Salespeople, account managers, customer service/ success folks, marketers – everyone needs to be on top of what the message is, and the answers to key questions.

    They’re also the people who will be best placed to monitor reactions and escalations – via phone, email and social media.

    4. Deliver that next update, as promised
    Once you’ve made a commitment to provide an update, you need to make sure you follow through on it. If the problem is solved relatively quickly, you may be able to skip this step. But if the SaaS outage extends beyond 60-90 minutes without an end in sight, you’ll probably need to provide an interim update.

    5. Once it’s fixed, let people know – and provide next steps
    You’re back up – so let people know! Apologise unreservedly for the outage (own it, don’t make excuses), thank people for their patience, and if there are next steps, let them know what they may be.

    What kind of next steps? Your SLA will cover standard penalties for outages – but if it was particularly long or public, you may wish to offer customers something in addition to the usual compensation. Or there may be steps that you need to take to ensure that customers do regain full access. Either way, let them know.

    6. Stick around to make sure everything is running smoothly
    If it’s after office hours and it’s been a stressful day, you may just want to go home and forget about the outage. But if you’re lucky enough to have a more global customer base, some of those customers will be just waking up to news of the outage. Even if everything is fixed, you still need to make sure that someone’s available to communicate with and reassure them.

    7. Debrief, then update your plan
    Your technical team will be having a debrief, and it’s important to debrief from a marketing/ communications perspective too. How did customers react? Did the messaging communicate the situation clearly? Which channels had the most responses? Which customers were the most affected (and thus potentially at risk)? Was there any negative backlash on social media?

    Understanding what worked – and didn’t – will help you to fine-tune your SaaS outage comms plan for the future. And if you didn’t have a plan to start with, it’s the perfect time to take the lessons you’ve learned and create one for future use!

    What next?
    Don’t have a plan, and not sure where to start? Check out my (free, no email address required!) download, 8 Steps to Creating a SaaS Outage Comms Plan.

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    © Laura Lilienthal, 2021. All rights reserved.