The importance of communication...
I am now experiencing full withdrawal symptoms. It has now been almost a day and a half without access to my e-mail. We use Intermedia to host our e-mail -- and have historically found them to be very reliable. They are the world's largest provider of hosted Exchange. And their service level agreement "guarantees 100% data protection and less than six minutes of Exchange hosting downtime per year". Well, they are now 1,680 minutes past their six minutes guarantee...
This outage has shown me just how much I rely on email communication. But it's also shown me how much I've come to expect open, transparent and constant communication from a vendor. I totally get that despite every precaution, an outage can occur. I get the fact that despite Intermedia's massive investment in DataEcho™ technology that securely replicates Exchange data across two of their four datacenters, the system can crash. It might be human error. It might be a hardware failure. Shit happens.
What I don't get is why Intermedia has been so poor in their communication. The "Network Status" page on their website reads as if it is targeted towards IT folks rather than people. While it tries to explain mail queing, it never says "Hey...we're sorry. We know we took down your email and that's not acceptable." There has been not one post on their blog during this outage -- and the last post is still a whitepaper highlighting the benefiuts of outsourced Exchange hosting. The last update on their twitter account is 19 hours old and inaccurate, stating that "At this time all
services are online and functional..." The Intermedia phone lines are unreachable. And the homepage of their website has not changed at all -- with the "What's New" section not updated since March 4th.
You want me to tell you what's new??? Your service has been out for more than 24 hours. I was almost unable to file my taxes yesterday (and god help any accountants that used Intermedia) and my partner is stuck in London because of a volcano. We're not getting email and you aren't talking to me!
For a company that is in the business of helping people manage their digital communications, Intermedia's failure to communicate is an inexcusable failure. It has reinforced to me the importance of open and transparent communications. I'm not saying they need to add a live stream to their homepage like First Round Capital has. Just that they should use the tools they already have (their homepage, their blog, their twitter account and their network status pages) to talk with their customers.
Now, given the fact that you historically have been so reliable and operated with virtually no downtime, I would assume that you've built your customer communications plans on the assumption that outages will be short and temporary. I agree that if you are down/slow for 4 minutes, you don't need to re-write your homepage and put out a press release. But I do think you need to have a completely different communication plan when faced with a massive failure.
When US Airways flight 1549 crashed in the Hudson River last year, I was very impressed with US Airways' response. The homepage of their site had information updated hourly. They released 8 press releases in the first 48 hours after the crash. Their CEO was visible and making statements to the press -- even with incomplete information. Now I know there is a huge difference between a server crash and a plane crash. But I do think that there is something Intermedia can learn from US Airways.
- Communication, even with uncertainty, is better than silence.
- Use all of the social tools out there to communicate with your customers. If people are complaining on Twitter, respond to them. It's amazing to see people like myself, Stewart Alsop, and others tweeting to Intermedia without a response.
- Speak to them as people -- not as engineers. US Airways didn't start talking about engine construction and plane salvage. Their CEO spoke with candor and personality.
- Say you're sorry. And acknowledge the inconvenience. Don't talk to me about mail queuing and RFC mail servers.
- Be reachable. US Airways set up websites and special phone number to reach them.
- The negative effects of silence are worse than the negative effects of communication. For example, I assume that there must be some PR people at Intermedia that are worried that if they communicate about their outage too much (on their homepage, twitter, blog) than people won't want to use Intermedia. I think that this is actually the opposite. I am more upset by Intermedia's silence than by their outage.
I've flown over 100,000 miles on US Airways since flight 1549 crashed -- in part because of the confidence I had after seeing the way they handled that crash (and also in part that it's hard to live in Philadelphia and fly any other airline). But I do have a lot of choices for email providers. And I'm not sure how much longer First Round Capital will be relying on Intermedia after seeing how they handled their crash.
[And to save everyone the time in their comments -- yes, we will be considering Google's mail product]