Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Zero-Minute Crises

On November 3rd, 2014 at about noon EST, Bank of America experienced an online banking outage impacting its 31 million online banking customers and 16 million mobile banking users. The outage lasted almost three hours during which the company issued a single statement via twitter, almost two hours into the event:

Some customers may be experiencing issues accessing online & mobile banking. We’re working quickly to resolve. Thanks for your patience.

Customers turned to social media for answers as attempts to connect directly to BofA failed. Having long ago forwarded local branch phones to a national exchange, customers found it impossible to get someone live from BofA during the outage since the national phone lines appeared to be completely overwhelmed. For hours a bank's customers could not access their money or get any information about when the system would be restored. One week later, Bank of America has yet to issue any statement to customers on why the system went down.

While this one event is unlikely to cause any long term damage to Bank of America, it is an example of a new kind of challenge that companies are facing, one which they are remarkably unprepared to deal with.

Computer security experts describe a zero-day (or zero-hour) attack as one that exploits a previously unknown flaw and thus developers have no time to address and patch before damage is being done. In the same way, companies are increasingly facing emergent communications crises for which they have no time to formulate and communicate a response.


Social media and ubiquitous mobile connectivity are forever changing the expectations that customers have of the timely responsiveness to their questions. In a 2012 study by Nielsen, twitter users were found to expect a response from companies in less than 2 hours. As companies in some industries meet or beat this goal, expectations will continue to rise (or shorten).

Companies have no alternative but to engage with customers, where those customers already are -- today perhaps twitter and facebook but in the future other places and sometimes dependent upon the company, industry, or community that needs to be reached. By comparison to the core marketing budget, the cost of actually communicating with customers on social media is negligible. And customers now expect companies to communicate (they'd much rather get an answer than an ad).


First - you'll need a social media listening and analytics platform scaled to the size of your organization and customer outreach. One client recently described the objective of such a system as "never be surprised again."

Second - develop a team that monitors and responds to customers and also the processes to connect that team with other core customer facing parts of your company -- sales, marketing, customer service...

Third - prepare to be changed by these customer interactions -- expect to gain insights and to make sure those insights get embedded into new ways of operating or into your product/service innovation processes.


I know, it seems like this should all be second nature by now. And yes I have been writing and speaking on this topic for years. But events like the recent Bank of America outage show that our companies are still not understanding the imperative. Do we have to wait for the HBR case study on how a lack of communication with customers has a measurable financial impact on a company to finally make the investments needed here?