Black Friday 2014 in Britain caused more than havoc in the physical shopping outlets of many retailers. The virtual retailing world became equally chaotic. As five times the average number of shoppers flocked to their computers to snap up deals online, Black Friday brought many leading retailers’ websites to their knees.

Due to the huge demand, myriad overwhelmed websites crashed. Retailers of all types – even the big players like John Lewis, Tesco Direct, Argos, Asda and Curry’s – were caught out by the weight of increased traffic as online transactions soared by around by 22 per cent over last year’s levels, with some 8.5 million items estimated to be bought virtually.

You only have to Google ‘Black Friday 2014’ to see the news illustrating that no matter how much testing you do – sometimes things just go wrong. In the case of Black Friday, websites swamped by the record demand caused huge frustration as customers were left drumming their fingers as some waited hours for online traffic jams to be resolved. Needless to say, it takes time for retailers to recover from the impact on their brands.

Tips for crisis management planning

The lesson? It’s quite clear that no matter how prepared you are and how much work you do, websites can fail and call centres can go down – often due to no fault of your own. It’s how you handle the situation that matters most to your customers.

This is food for thought. We are always telling our customers to test, test and test again when it comes to website load testing and performance tuning. This is essential, but Black Friday’s events remind me to add – plan for the worst into the load testing scenario. With this in mind, here’s a few crisis management planning tips.

1. Plan

It’s all in the planning. It may seem like a lot of extra work for nothing, but believe me – having a plan in place before a crisis hits will make it easier to deal with. Make sure to involve your team and be sure to define each person’s role – this will help ensure everything gets done and the team feels a part of the solution.

2. Assess

Assess risks and identify potential scenarios in advance. As part of your planning, take time to brainstorm about what could go wrong, how likely it is and put a plan in place to remedy it. For example, if you rely on your website for your business you need to think about what happens if it crashes, but also how you continue trading if there is a power outage or ongoing fault with the phone or broadband connection.

Put a plan together for each of these scenarios so you’re prepared if any of them come to pass. And don’t forget to provide printed out version to your employees – the intranet isn’t much use if floods, gale force winds or a hacker wipes out your intranet!

3. Communications Strategy

Agree a communications strategy. How you communicate with employees, customers and the media are all essential in a crisis. Make sure you have a plan in place to deal with each of these, including identifying a media spokesperson. All the better if you have already prepared statement templates for each of your scenarios. They’ll need modifying, but it’s amazing how much harder it is to write a simple three –lined factual statement for enquiring journalists when you’re under stress.

4. Social Media

Don’t ignore social media. Whether or not your business is active on social media, your employees and customers are! Monitor what social networks are saying about you. What starts off as a ‘digital whisper’ can get very noisy if it’s ignored. LinkedIN, Twitter and Facebook can all be powerful tools when used correctly, but can also help carry bad news quickly if left unchecked. And make sure your company’s social media logins and passwords are kept safe, but known by more than one person. There’s nothing worse than trying to hack into your own systems to respond to angry tweets when you digital marketer is on holiday!

In summary, the key to managing a crisis is to be prepared. It’s not about scaremongering, but planning. For example, Curry’s invoked a queuing system for prospective purchasers; it had the dual purpose of keeping their website working while holding prospective customer in a queue and informed on wait times. While this did not meet everyone’s expectations, it was a strategy and certainly made sure the customer didn’t end up with a 404 message. Crisis management: think about it as protecting your investment – in your company, in the website you’ve extensively tested and in your team. A simple crisis management plan can help ensure a negative news story only appears as a few stories on Google, rather than a whole page of negative results

This article was first published in Fourthsource.com