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Incident communication best practices to avoid user frustration

Proper communication can prevent an IT outage or incident from spurring chaos. Use these techniques -- at home and abroad -- to keep end users well informed.

Communication is difficult to get right. Using language to convey a simple and specific point is an art in itself. Poor communication can tank relationships -- but done properly, it enables people to comprehend a situation, which in turn makes everyone involved happier.

Less-than-ideal communication often strains the relationship between IT and everyone else in a company. Some users want more details, some fewer, some don't care and some don't understand what was said. Communication is even more difficult in global organizations with offices across multiple geographic regions and countries. In a company setting, staff can feel embarrassed or stressed as they try to understand the language used in written instructions in an email.

Despite these challenges, there are incident communication best practices that can improve the messages IT teams send -- and how they send them.

IT outages

Systems will always break, and how IT admins inform users about those issues -- and keep them informed on the road to recovery -- is just as important as working to fix the problem. People don't like being kept in the dark, especially as they try to do their jobs and meet deadlines.

Time is of the essence. If IT teams use a website to broadcast outage updates, they need to keep the site as up to date as possible -- delayed information is pointless. Instead, use a push-style notification system, such as email.

Prompt alerts that advise users of an outage are critical, but so is an accurate and clear message. Decide on a time window -- it could be 5 minutes. If some systems are down, but it's unclear exactly what's affected, don't spend the next half hour working out what the situation is before you communicate it; bring users up to speed as early as possible. This will reduce the number of calls the IT team receives about the issue.

Don't spend half the message on an apology or justification for the outage.

Choose one IT staff member -- who is not working on a resolution to the problem -- to collate what's known and then send it out quickly. It's important to enforce separation between fixer and communicator, so each role can focus on their task and do it well. This distinction also provides assurance that someone can parse the problem and ensure others will understand it.

Another incident communication best practice is to keep updates short and sweet. Don't spend half the message on an apology or justification for the outage; just say clearly and concisely which systems are broken, whom it might affect, if there's an estimated fix time and any applicable workarounds. IT doesn't have to say why something is broken, but, if they choose to, it should be incredibly short, such as an explanation that it's a fault with the internet provider. Address further details in a post-mortem on the outage and provide it to anyone who needs or wants it.

Finally, for multinational organizations, consider having someone in each region who can preview messages and apply any necessary localizations. This step might not be necessary when IT teams first communicate an outage, but could be in cases where they distribute detailed written instructions.

Help desk

Beyond outages, most IT-user communication occurs around the help desk. These IT staff are often undervalued for the skills necessary to perform their jobs well -- if they aren't good communicators, the entire business suffers.

Help desk communication skills must include adaptability to situations: Technicians need to read and understand quickly how people work, and apply the most appropriate form of communication to that scenario. For example, some prefer emails over phone calls. And while this might seem like a minor decision, it's one that can either lead to, or prevent, a positive user experience.

Help desk staff's job is to reduce downtime as much as possible and guide staff to ensure they resolve issues properly. But don't be afraid to ask users how they want the job handled. For example, do they just want the problem sorted for them, do they want to work through it together, or are they interested in learning why the incident happened the way it did?

Every business is different, so to take advantage of these incident communication best practices, combine this information with the IT team's ideas and engage with users. Find out how they want to receive alerts and how regularly. Ask for feedback on possible improvements or adjustments. After users see their suggestions put into practice, they might just decide they want less communication instead of more.

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