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Ashley Madison: Your customer service crisis cheat sheet

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24th Jul 2015
Editor MyCustomer
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Ashley Madison, a website specialising in assisted adultery whilst boasting the strapline, “Life is short. Have an affair”  hit the news this week when it emerged a group of hackers, known as ‘The Impact Team’, had obtained customer data involving all of the website’s 37 million users, and were planning to release the information to the wider web for an inevitable public shaming. They then released 2,500 names.

“Out of all the data breaches, this is probably the funniest” wrote the Independent’s Cassandra Fairbanks, and it’s hard not to agree with her, especially when jokes about ‘customer betrayal’ and ‘breaches of trust’ start springing to mind.

However, in amongst the images the story conjures up of the site’s users tremoring beneath the bedsheets in fear of their marital indiscretions being exposed, it’s worth sparing a thought for anyone currently working in customer service for the extramarital dating site.

In the aftermath of the news breaking, Guardian journalist, Carmen Fishwick, who had set up an Ashley Madison account in the process of researching the company prior to the hack, reported that upon calling the company to have her account removed, found a service team that was apparently in complete disarray:

“A succession of representatives stated that Ashley Madison’s system was completely secure, that the hack was not successful, and that only two members’ details were ever leaked.

“The first representative, who spoke with a North American accent, told her that the company’s internet went down “half an hour ago”, which meant they could not reset her password or delete her account. When asked if the outage was connected with the hack, the representative said: “They tried [to take the internet down] but they didn’t succeed. We have a technical glitch. Sometimes we have glitches on the system because we have too many members."

Fishwick’s call was then disconnected. Upon the second call, she then spoke to another representative who once again assured her that her details were safe and that the story was media fabrication:

“An attempt to transfer the call was again disconnected. Upon redialling, another representative repeated the claim that only two members were affected, and added that: “Credit card details are not saved in our servers, it’s saved in payment processors. Email addresses and photos are saved in the system. But no one has access to us, it takes a lot to break our system. The media has made it sound like a huge deal.”

Not too long after, the 2,500 names were released onto the web, and an Ashley Madison spokesman conceded to the Guardian that the company had spoken with its customer service team “to make sure that the message is consistent all round …[but that] some of them might be stepping a bit too far in terms of what they’re saying”.

Dealing with a crisis

The question is – how does a customer service team deal with such unforetold circumstances? Flinging to one side the fact that it is a story hinging around an ostensibly comical topic, it’s worth noting that Ashley Madison’s security hack represented an ‘unexpected crisis’ for the company and its customer support employees. One that seemingly led to a vital line of communication being broken between the message broadcast by official senior management and the one being voiced by its support staff.

Add to this the extreme spike in customer complaint numbers, intense media attention and the rapidly-changing nature of the crisis at hand, and it is understandable why such a failure occurred.

Ann-Marie Stagg, chief executive of the Call Centre Management Association (CCMA) believes this breakdown could have been averted, however, had both the support staff and their managers followed some basic principles of service support:

“In a situation like this things can start to go wrong if the front line advisors are poorly briefed by their management or do not fully understand the situation.

“We always advise customer service teams that in a crisis situation, the stick to nine simple values. For the managers, that’s about adhering to the following:

1.    Fully brief all of your customer-facing staff and decide on a full set of answers to “Frequently Asked Questions” based on an official line from your communications team.

2.    Update your self-service channels, IVR, website etc with regular information and answers to frequently asked questions.

3.    Keep customer-facing staff up-to-date with developments and provide realistic timescales for problem resolution.

“For the agents involved in the process, that means sticking to the following standard principles, even under the most extreme of pressure:

1.    Tell the truth.

2.    Acknowledge the customers concerns, listen to them, emphathise. Use phrases like’ I understand’.

3.    Be clear and concise, don’t waffle. This is the situation, this is what will happen next.

4.    If possible give a time when things will be fixed/or when the customer can expect a response.

5.    Customers may not like it, but in a scenario like this be prepared to say that the organisation is still working on it.

6.    It is best to under-promise and over-deliver!”

In Ashley Madison’s case it could be argued that very few items on this cheat sheet were followed, and this may result in picking over the bones of the security hack for some time, before finding sure-fire ways to ensure it can’t happen again and that its customer service team are briefed in how exactly to broadcast this matter.

If it’s able to do that, however, it can take solace from organisations like UK utility Severn Trent, which was found guilty of distorting performance data for the industry regulator Ofwat and fined £38m in 2010. Within two years, with a little more attention spend to addressing customer needs, Severn Trent had been voted Utility of the Year.

Examples like this may not be directly related, but they do prove customers are able to forgive and forget some brands. Although, in Ashley Madison’s case there is the added layer of hoping that its users’ wives and husbands have also managed to forgive and forget, too.

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