Your most important customer is in panic mode. It's running out of one of your parts, there's no inventory in your warehouse, and the shortage may halt production of its most important product.
Your boss is melting down. He's 500 miles away from the office and two hours away from delivering a status report to the board of directors. But his presentation software keeps crashing, and he can't give his talk without his slides.
Crises. They have become a routine part of doing business in a world where everything moves fast, nothing is unimportant, and there are countless ways for people to express their grievances.
If any organization knows how to handle crises, it's DriveSavers, a small but celebrated "data recovery" company based in Novato, California. Almost every time the phone rings at DriveSavers — and it often rings off the hook — the person on the other end is in crisis. That's because DriveSavers (http://www.drivesavers.com), handles computer emergencies: coaxing lost data from a hopelessly corrupted hard drive, or rescuing files from a laptop that's been submerged in 50 feet of water.
DriveSavers rescued a year's worth of episodes of "The Simpsons" after a script-writer's computer crashed. Sting shipped his hard drive from England after local experts concluded that recovering its contents was hopeless. Ben & Jerry's lost its main server, which contained all its accounting records and recipes, until DriveSavers brought it back.
And if anyone at DriveSavers understands how to handle the human side of crisis, it's Nikki Stange, 36, whose official title is "data crisis counselor." Stange operates on the front lines of business disasters. She answers the company's crisis hotline (800-440-1904) and keeps clients posted while DriveSavers tries to save their data (which it manages to do about 90% of the time). Stange, who has counseled thousands of people with computer emergencies, was well trained for her job. Before signing on with the company in 1992, she spent two years working on a suicide-prevention hotline in Boulder, Colorado.
Stange offers six principles for helping people — customers, colleagues, CEOs — work through a business crisis.
I feel your pain. Working through a crisis is not an exercise in pure logic. There is an undeniable emotional component too. So don't plunge immediately into the details of the problem. Open the vent window and let people talk, advises Stange, who has answered plenty of calls that began with hysterical crying.
"I ask people to go through the emotions they're experiencing," she says. "There's an incredible amount of anger, frustration, guilt, and fear that can be almost paralyzing." But don't get too caught up in others' emotions, she warns: "I use my voice a lot on the phone. The faster and more excited the customer is talking, the slower and more calm and soothing I try to sound."
Have I got a story for you. The best way to understand the origins of a crisis, says Stange, is to invite people to tell you exactly what happened. Not only does the storytelling process generate lots of information; it also has a calming effect.
At DriveSavers, storytelling might consist of a succinct "I spilled coffee on my laptop!" or an elaborate report from a chief information officer on the demise of his company's network. Even simple stories — "I turned on my laptop this morning, it didn't work, so I punched it, and now it's really messed up" — inform the listener and help the person focus on the problem.
You think you've got it bad! The best reassurance for someone in crisis is to hear about someone else who was even worse off and still managed to recover. "I tell people some of our disaster stories to take them out of their own trauma," says Stange. "A graphic, wild story gives people hope."
It also serves as escapism, "like taking someone who is upset to a movie." Did you hear the one about the New Jersey woman who illegally scuba-dived into the wreckage of a cruise ship resting at the bottom of the Amazon to rescue her sunken laptop? DriveSavers successfully recovered files from that drowned machine.
What language are you speaking? Crises tend to get solved by people with specialized expertise — whether the crisis in question involves computers or customer service. But expert jargon seldom calms frayed nerves. Nor does business baby talk.
DriveSavers has customers with vastly different technical comfort levels, from experienced IS hands to hapless artists who don't know a CPU from the CPI. Stange immediately assesses what kind of clients she's talking to based on what they say about themselves and the language they use to describe their problem. She then speaks to them in a similar way. "Some people are threatened by technical terms," Stange explains. "Some people are calmed by them." The key is to know which type you have on the line.
See the trees, not the forest. A moment of crisis can bring to the surface a lifetime of anxiety. One of the biggest challenges in suicide prevention, Stange says, is "isolating the areas where the caller is dissatisfied and wants to make changes," rather than evaluating the sum total of that person's existence.
Business crises create similar challenges. Your computer crashes, you can't access a project you've been working on for six months, and you've got a review meeting tomorrow. Your first thought: I'm going to be fired! The real problem is much simpler. How do I access those files within 24 hours? The best way to get through a crisis is to focus on mundane details.
Reality is the best therapy. Few crises are as dire as the worst-case scenarios imagined by the people experiencing them. But some are. And the worst thing you can do in those situations, Stange argues, is to sugarcoat the truth. Don't make promises you can't keep. Don't mislead people in the interest of "making them feel better." In the long run, you do them a disservice and damage your reputation.
At DriveSavers, for example, customers have been known to rail against their disk-drive manufacturer and vow to sue that company because their system crashed. But legal precedent is clear: it's the customer's responsibility to back up files, not the manufacturer's job to make perfect drives. "It's important for people to understand reality," says Stange. "I let them know that suing is not an option. I say something like, 'You'll probably get really mad at me for saying this ... " But that's reality."
Facing up to bad news also helps her clients get beyond it, says Stange. People who project anger outward usually have lots of anger inside: "You're really mad at yourself, and as long as it remains directed 'out there,' you're not going to deal with it."
Katharine Mieszkowski (email@example.com) is a senior writer at Fast Company.
A version of this article appeared in the October/November 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.