Outlook apology is a template for crisis response

Where Microsoft fleetingly fails from a technical standpoint, it prospers in its corporate handling of the incident.

Losing access to email for 20 minutes—let alone three days—would test anyone’s patience in today’s super dialed-in world.

But that’s exactly the crisis that persisted into this weekend for Microsoft when its Outlook.com email service crashed. On Saturday the company said it had resolved the issues for customers, some of whom had been without email for three days.

Though the company failed in technical areas, it succeeded in how it communicated the issue with its customers.

Microsoft issued a well-crafted, 400-word statement that could be used as a case study on how to communicate with customers by simply and honestly explaining a technical issue and the ways it is going to fix the issue so it doesn’t happen again.

Microsoft’s apology was effective for a variety of reasons including:

• The company actually made a public apology, emailed directly to all of its Outlook customers. It could have simply apologized though the media or posted it on a website, but instead it owned the mea culpa.

• The statement fully and simply explained the problem. Sometime the best apology is two sentences long, acknowledging the issue and promising to make changes. In this case, Microsoft understood that people wanted more of an explanation. Most people with smartphones that sync their email accounts can understand how a failed server can cause a flood of cache issues, and that’s just how Microsoft explained it.

• Microsoft’s statement gave a point-by-point accounting of what it is doing to make sure this type of outage won’t happen again, listing its two key changes: The first involves increasing network bandwidth in the affected part of the system, and the second involves changing the way error handling is done for devices using exchange services.

• The statement was written in the first person and signed by a living, breathing human, not simply a comment from an anonymous corporate entity. I’m not sure who Dick Craddock is, but good for him for allowing himself to be the voice behind Microsoft and making the apology that much more authentic.

• Even after it issued its apology, the company issued another statement acknowledging that email problems still plagued some customers, showing full transparency and heading off any customers who are sharing their email woes on social media.

Microsoft is clearly aware that are numerous competitors in the email world that are going to try to capitalize on this issue, and to the software giant’s credit, it gave some customers pause before opening up a Gmail account.

Gil Rudawsky heads the crisis communication and issues management practice at GroundFloor Media in Denver. He is a former reporter and editor. Read his blog or contact him at grudawsky@groundfloormedia.com.


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