This past week I had the chance to speak with a serial entrepreneur who has recently added another business to their already hectic schedule. In the course of our conversation we inevitably pointed the conversation to talking about how to handle thing when they eventually go wrong in her new venture.  

In an attempt to be good natured and given that she was recommended to me by someone who I trust and respect, we walked through how I would handle her proposed crisis event.

The basic outline of how I would handle it is as follows:

* Initial acknowledgement of the issue to the person raising it

* Investigation into what happened by other parties who were present at the offending event

* Explanation of what the company was doing to solve this issue directly to the individual raising the issue

* Public acknowledgement of resolution and finally

* Public explanation in a long form format (typically a blog post) explaining the entire chain of events as well as changes (or lack of changes) in internal policy and procedure

Admittedly, I didn’t do a spectacular job explaining the first two steps in our phone conversation which caused confusion but ultimately we got all that sorted so they clearly understood.  This CEO was actually fairly shocked that I wouldn’t choose to speak in depth about the issue at hand and how they would want it to be resolved.

The reason for that is fairly simple to me: crisis events should not be handled like individual customer service issues. Even though the vast majority of outward facing crisis events include customer service issues it is fairly rare where one customer can spark a crisis all on their own. They are a single voice in the sea of online media. The issue that you have to worry about in these situations in order to prevent a crisis is that an individual customer outcry for help sparks other customer outrage and that becomes a self feeding energy that’s negative about your company.

The case that proves this point and most social media professionals fear is Dave Carroll and his “United Breaks Guitars” video. Most folks who fly more than once a year can appreciate feeling slighted, unheard or inconvenienced by an airline. That shared emotional component is ultimately why this video gained the critical social sharing aspect and then only resulted in more people airing out their stories on social media.

To be able to know if you’re needing to go forward with a customer service style of response or a crisis management one you have to know if there is more to the situation and in particular if other customers will amplify the content bringing the issue to the public’s attention or if your other customers will come to your brand’s defense because this was a one off error (if an error even did occur [which more than once in the last year I’ve had “crisis” issues cross my desk that were completely fabricated by disgruntled non-customers]).  If you try and handle it as a customer service issue, especially in public, you risk having to handle the subsequent rounds of customer complaints in the same manner and you’ll tap out your staff, especially in start up environments, very quickly.

Hopefully after reading this short explanation you now understand the difference between how most internal staff would try and handle a severe customer service issue versus the way that I and my company would.  The folks on the front lines for your business mean incredibly well but their desire to immediately help and not give everyone a chance to breathe and collect information can make it impossible for the business to respond appropriately in the event that this is a crisis event and this individual complaint is a spark event.