Cogeco's response to email crisis: The good and the bad

According to the old adage, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Well, the people over at Cogeco might disagree after the week they had.

The company made headlines for all the wrong reasons this week after a massive email outage left thousands of customers across Ontario unable to send or receive messages. 

Hundreds of frustrated customers have since taken to Twitter and Facebook to voice their displeasure, to ask the company for answers and even to threaten switching email providers. Customers began experiencing problems accessing email on the Cogeco system as early as Sunday night. Within hours, company officials were posting updates about the problem on its official Facebook site and responding to users on Twitter by directing them to the Facebook page. On that note, Cogeco deserves full credit for quickly embracing its social media channels to respond to its customers and provide updates on the status of the service disruption. 

Because, hey, stuff happens

And while some organizations respond to a crisis by offing their social media presence, smart leaders know that in the age of social media, you simply cannot bury your head in the sand when the sh*t hits the fan. We get it... Power outages happen. Cables can get severed. Switches can freeze and gas leaks can occur. But what matters, perhaps today more than ever, is how the company in question responds to the event - both operationally and in its communications.

From the beginning of its email kerfuffle, Cogeco has kept customers informed through a series of online updates. I was particularly impressed by the fact that a tweet I sent out yesterday talking about the issue prompted a timely Twitter response from the company apologizing for the debacle and directing me to their Facebook page.

Why, then, were so many customers still writing angry tweets and threatening to leave the company 24 hours after the problem was supposed to be resolved? 

Here's one theory...

Cogeco told its customers the email problem had been resolved as of 9:00 a.m. on the morning of Tuesday, August 28. Technically, that's true. They resolved the source of the problem. However, a full day after the company posted that update, many of its customers were still unable to access their email accounts. A massive system backlog and capacity problems related to the sheer number of people trying to access the system meant that while Cogeco had fixed the source of the disruption, for many, service still wasn’t restored.

From an IT standpoint, the problem was solved. But that was little consolation to someone who still couldn't download their email with that new job offer, a picture of their grandchild or the latest Obama or Romney joke. Without getting too existential, if a corporate spokesperson says the problem is solved but you still can't send or receive email, is it really fixed?

It comes down to managing expectations. Cogeco should be commended for tackling the issue head-on and using social media to actually engage with their customers instead of just spraying news at them. You can bet there are a lot of hard-working people at the company who have gotten very little sleep over the past few days. 

The definition of 'resolved'

The harsh reality, however, is that an IT guy’s interpretation of “resolved” is different from that of your grandmother who still can’t check her email. The misalignment of what Cogeco was saying and what customers were actually experiencing resulted in even more frustration and anger than if the company had simply said it was still working around the clock to restore service.

Ultimately, despite its proactive social media approach, the company overpromised by saying the problem was fixed. Something similar happened in Hagersville, Ontario when a pile of 14 million scrap tires caught fire. Officials on the scene did media interviews pinpointing the date and time when the fire would be extinguished. The next morning, the fire was still raging. They revised their deadline. And they missed it again. How many times does that have to happen before the public loses confidence in the people running the show? Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying a tire fire and email interruption are equivalent on the scale of human tragedy. But whether you're dealing with blazing tires or empty inboxes, it's better to tell the public you're working tirelessly to resolve the problem than predicting the exact time it will be fixed. Or telling them it's fixed for you when what they really want to know is when it will be fixed for them. 

Cogeco did a number of things right in dealing with this service interruption. They were transparent, they used social media as well as the traditional media to get their message out. They were working madly behind the scenes to fix the technical issues. But the company's messaging was inconsistent with what many of its customers were experiencing on their computers and smartphones. And because of that, their herculean efforts fell just a bit short. 

Here's a small sampling of the reaction to the Cogeco email service interruption, from the company and some of its customers...

[View the story "Small sample of reaction to Cogeco email interruption" on Storify

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