Disaster Recovery: Keeping Your Customers

None of us wants to spend much time thinking about a potential crisis. The process of leading and growing a business is hard and stressful enough without playing “what if” games about disaster scenarios. But we do it anyway because we know that doing nothing is irresponsible and foolish. However, many of the disaster recovery (or business continuity) plans I see are woefully incomplete because they pay too little attention to the customer component.iStock_000014547996Small

In most cases, recovery plans focus on people and property. Employee safety ranks first, always. No argument. In most recovery plans, that gets coupled with employee communication. Typically what comes next is property — assets. Those can be production capabilities or technology or data. But a plan to protect and restore the assets is typically the second area of focus in most recovery plans. A distant third, when it is present at all, is the customer-facing side of recovery. And that is often incredibly limited. So let me suggest a different perspective.

Your business is now, and has always been, about your customers. They are who you exist to serve. It’s by capturing a portion of the value you create for your customers that you’re able to thrive. Why, then, wouldn’t customers be at the very heart of any disaster recovery plan? Why wouldn’t they be there expressly and directly, rather than by inference? This is an issue about which customers care.

A Case Example

A few months ago I helped a client company create a disaster recovery plan for the first time, triggered by the requirement that it be described and included in a proposal to a top tier customer. The company, a marketing services provider, had an opportunity to radically enlarge the relationship with one of their best customers. It required a great proposal and a contract to define the relationship. And one of the elements the customer required was a solid disaster recovery plan that detailed how the customer should expect to be treated should a disaster strike.

We worked with the client to create a disaster recovery plan that was customer-focused. It started by describing the tangible steps the company would take to insure that the effects of any disaster on its customers were minimized from the first. It described lines of communication, how customer property and data would be protected or restored, how customer confidentiality would be preserved, and how the customer would be compensated should they be effected. The plan then described the resources and actions that would make all of that possible.

At the outset, company management saw the customer requirement for a detailed disaster recovery plan as a deal-breaker. The company didn’t have one when the customer request was made. There was a fair amount of concern that the whole relationship could be at risk, not merely the enlarged one. So this became a priority with a deadline attached.

The outcome was remarkable, and remarkably positive. The plan was developed by starting with the company’s commitment to its customers. That created a framework which made clear the customer experience that the company had to be able to deliver, even during a crisis or disaster. And that drove the creation of processes and identification of the resources necessary to deliver on that commitment. In other words, the need for the disaster recovery plan to be customer-facing from the beginning made the creation of the plan easier because it detailed the results that the plan needed to deliver.

When the plan was delivered to the customer, described in the proposal and included in full as an appendix to the proposal, the customer’s reaction was incredibly positive. Since the customer had secured competing proposals for the enlarged relationship, they were able to compare the company’s approach to disaster recovery with those described by the company’s competitors. The new recovery plan was the only one entirely focused on customer outcomes. It became a solid piece of evidence that the customer had been choosing wisely all along by doing business with the company. And it became a significant driver for the customer to choose to expand the relationship.

Disaster Recovery and Competitive Advantage

Did you catch what happened? The disaster recovery plan became a source of competitive advantage. Now there’s a connection. In the eyes of the customer, the approach the company took to disaster recovery differentiated them from their competitors. And what was different wasn’t the specific actions required to keep people safe and informed, and to be back in operation quickly. Instead, what was different was that the plan was built around what the customer would experience as a first priority, and a defining framework. It made the company’s commitment to its customers tangible in a powerful fashion.

It is all too easy to fall victim to what I call “four walls myopia.” That’s the affliction that treats what goes on within the four walls of the company as of paramount importance. But a company lives and dies in its customer interactions, in how it behaves with its customers and in the experiences it creates for those customers. When fulfilling the company’s core commitment to its customers (what I call a “brand promise”) outranks all other priorities, then even disaster recovery planning is guided by that commitment.

So what’s your core commitment to your customers? What is your brand promise? Do you believe that your customers should be understanding if your firm is struck by a disaster, and give you a pass on keeping that commitment because disaster struck? If so, then you’re in the majority, you’re failing to live up to the customer commitments you’re claiming, and you’re missing a significant opportunity.

If your customer-centered disaster recovery plan was described and included in each of your proposals, how quickly would that set you apart from your competitors? Would it underscore that your customer commitments are more than the claims or platitudes that echo in all of the other proposals your customers and potential customers receive? In the minds of your customers, would it make your disaster recovery process genuinely valuable?

Creating Your Plan

Creating a customer-centered disaster recovery plan need not be daunting or scary. What it requires is a different starting place. You can identify the necessary resources and processes to insure that the impact on your customers of any disaster you suffer is minimized and fast. AMSP members have a wealth of resources available to insure that the delivery of services to your customers resumes and continues. So finding the resources is rarely the most difficult piece of the puzzle.

What is required involving different people in your disaster recovery plan than you would typically task with creating it. Most often, operations and human resources folk are given the task of creating the plan. And that makes sense if your priority is people (your own) and property. But if retaining and protecting your customers is the top priority, then customer service and business development will need to take much bigger roles in the plan’s development. They are the folk best equipped to describe the best possible customer results. They are also the folk best equipped to vet your plan with your key customers before you adopt and implement it. And customer feedback is critical.

Customers that have been through a disaster with a company and been well cared for through that experience tend to be incredibly loyal to the company. Their thinking is: “If the company lives up to its aspirations and promises under extreme circumstances, then it can be trusted to live up to them under routine circumstances.” Companies that take great care of their customers through a crisis have proven that they mean what they promise. That has real value to your customers because it is the ultimate demonstration that you walk your talk.

So, who is at the center of your disaster recovery plan?

by Wayne M. Peterson, Principal
The Black Canyon Consulting Group Inc.