8 Steps for Successful Crisis Management

Two weeks into my first job as a management consultant, I found myself in São Paulo, Brazil. I was part of a nine-person project team, and two of us were in Brazil for the first six weeks of the project; the rest were in New York.

For the first month of the project, not a single person in New York knew my name. That changed when my colleague’s appendix ruptured.

It was two weeks before our first major client meeting, and this gentleman, my supervisor on the project, was in the hospital. Suddenly, our success depended on whether I—just a few months out of college—could find and share the data we needed, data that was the source material for that all-important first client meeting.

I still remember the teleconference the next day, with the full senior team in New York. During the call, I discovered that they were learning my name for the first time: one person said at the close of the call, “I know it’s a lot to get done, Sasha, but if you need help, I’m sure Alexander can chip in.” (My legal name is Alexander. There was no other person.)

For better or worse, I was now visible. How I managed through next two weeks set me on a trajectory in that job. Because I succeeded in that crisis, I was identified as someone to be trusted when the stakes were high.

You, too, will surely face crises in your professional life.

Here are eight steps you can follow to increase your own effectiveness when these crises arise.

  1. Intensify
  2. Grow the Team
  3. Name the Crisis
  4. Own the mistakes, and own the client’s experience of the mistakes
  5. Move into Crisis Triage
  6. Over-communicate
  7. Get the Work Done—Fast, and With Zero Mistakes
  8. Deliver…and sit tight

1. Intensify

In a crisis, attention is magnified. From the moment the crisis is identified, there’s a sharpening, a concentration of focus, that’s required of every member of the team.

It should feel different: your orientation is different, you’re in a higher gear. You’re working both faster and better: tearing through work, but also triple-checking it because making mistakes is not an option.

To note: it’s possible that the crisis isn’t the only thing you’re working on. If that’s the case, then you must be adept at shifting quickly between ‘normal’ and ‘crisis’ levels of attention and focus.

2. Grow the Team

Inevitably, you’ll need some extra people and skills to get through this. This could mean bringing in someone more senior to run point. But it could just as easily mean adding team members who you know you need to deal with this particular situation.

It’s important to move quickly here and be decisive. And it’s OK to overstaff a bit and then release people from the team if you don’t need them.

3. Name the Crisis

With your team in place, the team leader’s first step is to explain to everyone involved that this is a crisis. This needs to be clear both to the original team and the expanded team.

You must tell the new team members how we got here; why the situation is grave; why, specifically, the client is upset; and why that matters. So, not just, “they’re upset,” but, “they are upset because [x], they are one of the most respected actors in this market, if they end up dissatisfied, that will set us back 6 to 12 months in what we’re trying to do here.”

Importantly, these first three steps—intensify, grow the team, and naming the crisis—should all be completed in a matter of hours and, at most, in a day.

4. Own the mistakes, and own the client’s experience

If you’re in a client-facing situation, it’s essential that you own up to what’s gone wrong. This means giving voice the things you feel were screw-ups and the things your client feels were screw-ups.

This latter point is essential: this is not a moment to nickel-and-dime over whether the client is 100% right. They are disappointed and angry, you’ve agreed that your job is to fix the problem. And “the problem” is not an objective set of facts, it is your client’s subjective experience. At this moment, their narrative is what’s real. Tell them, in your own words, everything that went wrong.

If they don’t feel heard, there’s no way they’ll end up satisfied.

5. Move into Crisis Triage

This is the team operationalizing the “intensify” step. Specifically, this means that any task that is part of addressing the crisis is immediately at the top of each team member’s list.

When new information comes in, you act on it.

When new data comes in that could be analyzed, it’s analyzed immediately.

When any additional step can be taken, it gets taken as soon as possible, regardless of whatever other important work is on each team member’s plate.

In crisis triage, urgent trumps important, and everything crisis-related is, for now, urgent.

Nothing sits on your desk / in your Inbox / as a Slack message for a few hours.


6. Over-communicate

You want the client to see that everything is moving as fast as possible. Because, until the crisis is resolved, this is the only way to demonstrate that you are on it, and that solving this problem is your top priority. Without this, all your pretty words about how you understand the client and are committed to solving the problem ring hollow.

If this is a true crisis, you should, at a minimum, be communicating once a day to the client—more if there are major developments to be shared. And, of course, communicating much more than this internally.

The client should feel that they know everything that is going on, that they never have to chase you for any information.

You can slow down this cadence after the first week (or so) of the crisis, when things have moved from Defcon 5 to Defcon 4, but it’s nearly impossible to communicate too much in a crisis.

7. Get the Work Done—Fast, and With Zero Mistakes

This goes without saying, but the quality of the work, and the speed of the work, must be a 12 out of 10, from everyone. You’re moving as fast as possible and you’re triple-checking, you’re dotting every i and crossing every t, you’re getting a second set of eyes before sending…

Again, remember that this is about solving the problem and changing the narrative, and part of the narrative of any screw-up is the gap between how you promised your team would behave / your service would work and what happened.

Any mistake, no matter how small, will reinforce the narrative you’re trying to dismantle.

8. Deliver…and sit tight

The final step will depend on how big the problem was, and how well it was resolved. In a perfect world, the way you’ve responded, and the successful resolution, will have repaired or even strengthened your relationship with your client.

And that may happen, but it will likely take some time.

While you’re waiting, it always helps to thank the client for identifying the problem in the first place and for their patience, and to articulate your appreciation that they stuck with you.

In nearly all cases, you’ll have learned important things through this process—about how you do your work, and about your team.

And, if you’re one of those team members who worked through the crisis, in whatever role, savor the calm after the storm, relish the chance to have worked through something challenging, the chance you had to shine.

No one wants things to blow up.

But no one should ever let a good crisis go to waste.


When a client reaches out to tell you something’s wrong, you should feel something. It should bother you.

When we are told something’s gone wrong, there’s a leaning in that happens, a focus and attention on what’s been raised as well as a response at an emotional level – not of fear, but of heightened awareness and speed.

Think of all the time and effort that’s gone in to bringing this customer to this point: getting to know them, explaining your product, getting them to commit, working together with them for months or even years.

All of that is on the line at this moment.

The best part is, most organizations do a fabulously poor job of addressing concerns when customers raise them.

That means it’s easy distinguish yourselves from nearly everyone by responding well, quickly, and eagerly.

This comes in the form of an immediate (minutes, maybe hours at most) acknowledgement that you’ve receive their message, understand they are having a problem, and are working on resolving their issue.

It requires you to own the problem, by restating in your own words what they’ve said (so they know you’ve heard them) and telling them how seriously you take it.

And, you have to simultaneously escalate the problem so it moves as quickly as possible through your system.

Finally, it’s your job to resolve the problem with generosity, coupled with expressing gratitude to them for bringing it up.

We need to take all of our work personally, and that comes to the fore when a customer takes the time to knock on our door to say “hey, this isn’t quite right.”

Feel that moment in your gut and move accordingly.


Customer experience design requires us to take a barbell approach.

For example, I’ve recently started using Headspace, the meditation app, at home with one of my kids.

While meditation content and podcasts have been around forever, Headspace is a living example of the night-and-day difference between available and seamless: the Headspace experience is oh-so-smooth, the videos crisp, fun and engaging (whether you’re a kid or an adult), there’s a flow that keeps you engaged and continuing to meditate daily, with no distractions. Because the interactions have no bumps, the experience shifts from “try this a few times and drop it” to getting loads of busy newbies to meditate daily. Plus, the Ellen Degeneres show.

When we take the barbell approach, we move uncomfortably fast at the beginning: putting out products that don’t feel ready, testing like crazy, falling down a bunch, and iterating.

And then, at some discontinuous point, we must cross over from “messy and fast” to “seamless.”

This involves relentless focus to smooth off every edge, flatten out every bump, until our customer or our funder has to take as few steps as possible, and each of those steps is a joy.

The pitfall for nonprofits and social sector organizations is our habit of living in the middle of this barbell: we go much too slowly and are far too precious at the beginning, and we never get to that beauty at the other side.

Hint: if you haven’t ever sat with your team to map each and every step in your customers’ / funders’ journey, now is a good time to do that.

And, once you lay them out, see how many of them you can circle and describe as “Delightful!”

(p.s. for those of you who were paying close attention, no, I’m not planning to add the word ‘excellent’ to every blog title. Darned copy/paste gnomes!)


My bad

Nearly every legitimate customer complaint could be turned around right away with an immediate, forceful reply:

This shouldn’t have happened.

I’m sorry.

It was our mistake.

I’m going to fix it right now and make things better than they were before.

In other words, “I feel as bad about this as you do, because I care as deeply as you do – or more – about keeping the promise I’ve made to you as a customer.”

The power to diffuse comes from your definitive and quick response, which is only possible when the person hearing the complaint has the power to make things right.

Once a complaint has gone through four levels of escalation, no matter what you do it’s too late.


When it works

The line at my local Chipotle looks like this each and every day at lunchtime, with 20+ people on line and more streaming through the door.  And each time I’m there, I’m in and out in 7 minutes or less.


Conversely, there’s a lovely little bakery across the street from my office called Amy’s Bread. Most everything there is delicious (though wildly expensive), and I’d be there once a week if it weren’t for the fact that if Amy’s has anything more than four customers working their way through the line at the same time, their system grinds to a halt and it can take 10 minutes to get a salad and a piece of bread (let alone a hot pannini – 15 minutes or more!).

What’s going on here?  The fact is, it’s easy for us to spend our time time and energy focused on what went wrong: the customer that got away, the sale that didn’t close, the photo that we sent that didn’t pop as much as it should have, the pitch meeting that got off track and ended before it really started. What about the value we can create by making sure that everything goes just right when things go exactly the way they’re supposed to go?

What do we do when we come across a funder (customer) for whom our story completely aligns with their worldview, someone who jumps in quickly with both feet ready to help in a real way? Do we go above and beyond to make her experience more extraordinary, more remarkable, and more worth talking about than her wildest expectations?  Or, right after “closing the sale,” do we run around after the next potential customer or, worse, are we too busy breaking a sweat doing backflips for our loudest, most disgruntled customer – never mind that they might be the wrong customer for us – that we don’t pay enough attention to anybody else?

Step 1 is figuring out who, exactly, we are trying to serve, what their worldview is, the emotional change we expect to happen when they come in contact with our story, and what action we would like them to take when we’ve succeeded in making that change.

*phew* we say. Success. We did ALL of those hard things.

Yes, it’s success, and it’s just the start. The most important, value-added part we can do is to make sure that our perfect customer is beyond delighted after they become our customer.

Chipotle knows exactly what to do when 10 hungry people walk through the door on the hunt for a hot, fresh burrito.

Are you also ready to delight your best customers when they say “YES, I’m buying what you’re selling”?

Try it, you’ll learn

Irrespective of how much you care, about how hard you try to imagine every little thing your customers might need or want, until you are a buyer of your own product you’ll never fully understand what pieces it has and what are missing.  This means:

Using a new app for weeks until you figure out that the slow startup time actually matters in frequent use cases.

Trying the self-checkout line to discover that buying produce is a nightmare.

Creating presentations using Powerpoint to discover that the seven commands you use the most are on seven different menus, and three of them are buried two levels down.

Having your team member pitch you as if you were a potential donor to see what questions actually come up.

And of course giving to your organization – and to a bunch of others – to see what sort of communications you get how they make you feel.

The difference between a good experience and a great one is in the little things that are just right; and these are almost impossible to see from far away.

Lifetime guarantee

18 months ago I got a fancy work bag as a gift.  Within a year, the little ring holding the strap to the bag broke; a few months later the second one broke.

I finally made my way to their store in Soho in New York’s West Village to see if they’d fix or replace it.  Sure, they said.  It would take about a month to repair, and would cost me $150…to replace two little metal O-rings.

If you’re from the US you probably remember, way back when, when LL Bean was famous for taking back ANYTHING and always being willing to repair it or replace it.  This was long before the web or Facebook or social media yet, despite a lot more friction around messages spreading, that story spread – like the one about the guy who had 30-year LL Bean duck boots that finally gave out, he sent them in to LL Bean, and a brand new pair arrived, no questions asked.

This contrast got me thinking about what we see when a customer takes the time and the effort to bring back something that didn’t work or disappointed her.  Sure you could think her as a cost to be minimized.  You could make sure that the clerk she speaks to doesn’t have the authority to make a call to do something to help her, and you could definitely write a policy that’s going to minimize unwanted returns from people trying to scam you.

Or you could see her as someone who cares enough about your product to come back, someone who’s ready and willing to be wowed or disappointed right at that moment, someone who may as well be holding up a sign that says, “THIS IS YOUR BIG CHANCE: turn me into an evangelist for your extraordinary service!”

So of course you show that person the door…?

I don’t care much about the bag.  But it did get me thinking about the rare opportunities we have to really keep our promises.   It’s hard to imagine, even for folks in the nonprofit space, cases where a “lifetime moneyback guarantee” wouldn’t win you legions of loyal fans who will shout your story from the rooftops.

It’s not just the right thing to do, it also will pay off handsomely in the end.

In the know

There’s nothing better than turning your customers into insiders.  One way is to give them the sense that they’re in the know and they are sharing in a  special secret, even if it’s small and even if it’s only sort of secret.

For example, you can get some of the best brownies on the planet at Fatwitch bakery in Chelsea Market.  After 5PM they put up a tiny sign:

Unwrapped brownies sell for $1.50 after 5PM – that’s half price.  Everything else in the store – wrapped brownies, brownie mix, etc. – remains full price, and you have to pay close attention to notice the little sign.  Just the other day I was in there buying a couple of half priced brownies while three tourists bought 30 wrapped mini brownies for full price.

There’s no subterfuge going on here – anyone who orders a brownie at the counter gets charged $1.50 per scrumptious brownie.  Then again, the whole thing wouldn’t work on multiple levels if they had giant letters in storefront window saying “BROWNIES HALF OFF AFTER 5PM!!!”

Just a little something small, a tiny secret that keeps loyal customers coming back.


Bump and grind

WordPress.com, of which I am a very happy user (cost = free, uptime = 100%, functionality = great and always improving) has one interesting limitation – the blog statistics one can easily access are “blog traffic,” meaning the number of site visits you get on your blog.  There’s no direct information about how many RSS subscribers you have or people subscribe to your posts by email (never mind stuff being retweeted, re-Facebooked, re-emailed).

If blogs were magazines, this would be akin to tracking how many copies you sold at the newsstand and ignoring your monthly subscriber base.

The thing is, monkey see, monkey do.  Seeing those on-site stats daily makes you care about their mostly random vacillations.  And while they do matter some – if you’re writing good content, others will link to it, repost it on social media sites, etc. so your onsite traffic will increase – they’re mostly noise compared to getting and keeping loyal readers.  For example, getting 25 new RSS subscribers is obviously more important than getting 5,000 hits on a single day (25 subscribers = ~5,000 impressions /year), but it just doesn’t feel that way.

So when something big hits that gets you visibility, there’s a natural tendency to thirst for the next big bump – the big sale, the big media hit, the big donor, the big something new.  Keeping your true fans insanely happy somehow seems like less of a victory than landing the next big customer, maybe because happy customers are often quiet, meaning there’s not as much feedback there as you’d like or need.

And so we get one big bump, one big new sale, one major new donor, and the moment things go back to normal we thirst for that next bump and the accompanying adrenaline.  It feels exciting to bring in someone new, to make that big pitch, to close the sale.  After all, isn’t big game hunting what this is all about?

Well no, actually.  This game is part hunting and part gathering, and, in the long-term, nurturing and feeding your biggest fans pays off a lot more than that next potential big win…in fact, looking off too far into the distance is a surefire way to make your most enthusiastic supporters feel like chopped liver.

That constant cultivation, the care and feeding, is the real work that makes a lasting impact.

Out (f-cking) care the competition

I just learned last week about Gary Vaynerchuk from Seth Godin’s Domino Project (great post, Ishita), another great example of someone who pokes the box (you mean you haven’t read Poke the Box yet?  What are you waiting for?  It’s a top 100 book on Amazon, for goodness sake, and it will help you see that you don’t need to wait for anyone’s permission.    OK fine, I’ll write a review soon).

Then just yesterday a colleague told me that Gary’s talk at last weeks’ SXSW-Interactive was one of the top three at the whole darn conference.  Besides the entertainment value of Gary’s, uh, colorful vocabulary, (2 minutes and 4 seconds without dropping the “f-bomb”) Gary’s main message was that companies are going to win and lose based on who can “out care” their customers.

Speaking of caring (and not caring), the other night I was at Magnolia Bakery, which helped start the NY cupcake craze and which shamelessly charges nearly $3 for an (admittedly delicious) cupcake.   But service is slow.  The store is set up Disney-land style (pick your cupcakes here, walk down the long counter for the chance to buy more stuff, pay at the register at the end) which might work when there’s a throng of customers but makes no sense when you’d rather just drop six bucks in a jar and walk away with two cupcakes.

I was running late for a show, so I noticed when it took me (and the other six other customers in the store) nearly 10 minutes to buy cupcakes (two cupcakes per couple, so really three customers).  Bad enough, but much worse because there were 8 Magnolia employees chatting, working, and doing everything but notice that their empty shop had a logjam.  I even asked one of them if I could just pay and go, and she said she wasn’t assigned to the register.

“Too cool for school” might be an OK customer service approach when your shop is flooded with tourists looking for a “real NY experience,” but for the rest of us chickens it’s time to think seriously about out-caring the competition.  If you don’t believe me, read the blow-by-blow Zappos story in Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness, and remind yourself again and again: this is a billion dollar company with rabid fans who buy SHOES ONLINE.

While last week’s post about new humanism generated a lot of interest, some comments said that David Brooks’ arguments are old hat.  The ideas may not be new, but they’re certainly not mainstream (in business, in economics, in how we teach our kids), and I think it’s high time that changes.  It’s much more than a tweak to the old models….if you really take it seriously you have to throw the baby out with the bathwater and start afresh.

For example, the old way of thinking about customer service says that customers want the best product for the best price, and oh, yes, they want to good customer service too (read: nice-to-have, sort of like “soft skills”…can you hear the derisive sneer?).  The Zappos way of thinking says that creating an off-the-charts customer experience is the ONLY thing that matters.  For Zappos, it’s the end-all be-all.

It may be that Magnolia Bakery can ignore out-caring the competition because they serve up enough sugary, buttery goodness to anesthetize their customers (or, more seriously, because waiting forever confirms the story of cupcakes you flew across the country to try), but for the rest of us, it’s time to start out-caring the competition.

That means real relationships, every time.  It means you actually care, you don’t just act like you care.  It means you put emotional effort into everything you do.  It’s not easy to copy, which is why if you do it with abandon, you win.