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  • Writer's pictureJake Bartlett

Incident Management Best Practices for Customer Support

team managing an incident

Incidents happen, plain and simple. 


Things go wrong and business gets disrupted. 


A server goes down, leaving your customers without access to your application. Data is lost, or worse, hacked. A major feature isn’t working correctly on launch day.


Meanwhile, your support team is on the frontlines noticing your customers are submitting duplicate tickets about the incident. Your team is frantically trying to figure out what to do, and customers are upset that you haven’t acknowledged the incident. What seemed like a normal work day moments ago now feels like a chaotic firefight.


These stressful situations can be made much easier with an incident management plan.


What is incident management?


Incident management is the process of responding to an unplanned event that negatively impacts your business. It includes the steps taken to identify, analyze, respond to, and resolve critical issues the business is experiencing. 


A good incident management plan involves the right people, tools, and processes to help teams respond and recover quickly, communicate clearly, collaborate effectively, and continuously learn and improve.


Benefits of incident management


Having a plan in place for managing incidents has a lot of benefits. Ultimately, it comes down to a happier team and happier customers. Let’s look at how an incident management plan can help your business.


Faster incident resolution


Managing incidents using a well-thought-out process lets you and your team focus on resolving the problem instead of fumbling through messy processes. When you can stay focused on the problem at hand, you can resolve the incident much faster. Minimizing the duration of incidents is critical, as long-running and unresolved incidents can deteriorate trust with customers.


Improved customer experience


Incident management helps create a better customer experience. Instead of a chaotic experience with minimal or no communication, you’ll have a process you can follow that keeps customers in the loop. Without an incident management plan, your team will be frustrated and customers will be left in the dark and start to lose trust in your business. All of this could ultimately impact your bottom line. 


If you sell to large enterprise companies, having an incident management plan in place is often a requirement and something you’ll have to share with them during the procurement process, so you may as well stay ahead of that and get a plan in place today.


Strengthens relationships


Incident management involves a wide range of people and teams across the company. Bringing folks from engineering, operations, support, and product management together during the heat of the moment helps build stronger relationships across the entire organization. While incidents are stressful, they can help build camaraderie between teams.


How you respond to an incident can also improve your relationship with customers. Taking an incident and turning it into an exceptional experience through frequent communication and empathy is certainly possible. The result? Improved trust with customers. Alternatively, without a plan, you risk hurting relationships with customers.


Increased efficiency and team productivity


Incidents are costly and distracting. They pull valuable resources away from productive work. Resolving incidents faster means you can get back to the work you were doing before the incident was identified, making your entire company more efficient and productive.


Cultivates a transparent culture


Incident management helps promote a culture of transparency and trust by keeping customers and stakeholders informed about what’s happening. This transparency helps build trust between the business and customers and between teams in your company.


The incident management process


While managing incidents might look different from company to company, there is a general framework that you can follow. It consists of these specific actions:


1. Detect the incident


The first step is identifying that there is an incident. To identify an incident, you need a way to detect them. This is where monitoring tools come into play. Your engineering and ops teams will need to work together to set up the necessary monitors and alerts so that your team knows when something is occurring that qualifies as an incident. 


If your monitoring tools don’t pick up an incident, you might unfortunately hear about the incident from a customer. In that case, make sure you have an escalation plan in place. Then, follow up by adding the required monitors after the incident is resolved so that you find out about the incident before customers do if it happens again.


2. Declare the incident


Whether the incident was identified through monitoring, your customers, or someone else, it’s time to “pull the fire alarm”. You need to alert the necessary individuals about the incident so they can work to get the incident resolved as quickly as possible. 


3. Set up communication channels


Now that an incident has been declared, you need a place to communicate with your colleagues. Use Slack, Microsoft Team, Google Meet, Zoom, or any other tools your company already uses for team communication. External customer communication will come in step 5. 


4. Assess the incident


Understanding the type and severity of an incident is critical to the entire incident workflow. Severity influences who needs to be involved internally, and how you communicate with customers. It aligns the entire company on where the incident falls in prioritization of other incidents or work that’s happening.


5. Communicate with customers


Communicate with customers as soon as possible. If you don’t have a good understanding of what’s happening yet, that’s ok, saying something is better than saying nothing. Customers want to see you acknowledge the incident as this shows you care and you’re actively working on resolving the problem. Communicating early with customers will also help deflect additional tickets as you manage a spike in support volume.


6. Delegate roles


To resolve the incident, you must assign incident roles and make sure your entire team knows who’s responsible for what. Define the roles and educate the team about those roles in incident management training. This way, there is no question as to who owns different tasks and parts of the incident management plan.


7. Resolve the incident


Once the incident is resolved, mark it as closed or resolved in your incident management tool. If you’re using an external status page for customers, you’ll want to resolve it there and update customers with any additional information you have about what happened.


A resolved incident means the immediate impact has been mitigated, and the team is working to ensure the incident doesn’t happen again.


8. Post-incident review


The incident is resolved, but that doesn’t mean the work is done. There might be follow-up tasks that need to be prioritized. Conducting a post-incident review, also known as a “postmortem” or “retrospective”, for the incident is an opportunity to identify any next steps. This is also where the team can discuss what went wrong, and what went well, and figure out how to ensure the incident doesn’t recur.


Incident management best practices


Incidents are stressful but they don’t have to be a panic-stricken, unorganized mess. Having a plan in place will help your team resolve incidents more quickly and smoothly. Here are some best practices to consider as you build out your incident management process. 


Establish a clear vocabulary and be consistent with it


Define what an incident is for your company and be clear on what your severity levels mean. Being super clear with how you talk about the incident will ensure everyone is on the same page and messages don’t get misunderstood. 


Be clear with your product and service nomenclature as well. If you have people using multiple words to describe a specific component of your product, how will you ever know what they’re talking about? There is no room for fuzzy communication in incident management, keep it simple and clear.


Leverage tools for automation


As we mentioned earlier, you’ll need some monitoring tools in place to detect incidents. But what about other tools such as for communicating with customers? Do you have a status page? How do you escalate a ticket that might be related to an incident? Make sure your toolset accommodates the incident management process you need.


Establish communication channels ahead of time


A good incident management plan takes any administrative thinking out of the scenario. You don’t want to be making decisions on the fly about where or how to communicate during an incident. Establish those channels ahead of time and stick to them. 


For example, when an incident is identified you might always create a new Slack channel with the incident # or ID. Whatever the case, you should have a dedicated place to discuss the incident and your entire team should know how to access that channel.


Define roles ahead of time


Define all incident roles ahead of time so that you can easily assign them to the right individuals. For example, every incident might need an Incident Commander, Communication Lead, and Subject Matter Expert. Define the responsibility of those roles and make sure your team is aware of each role’s scope. Assign backups for each role in case someone is out sick, or has stepped away for lunch. 


Train early, and practice often


Make incident management training a part of the onboarding process so that new employees are equipped with the information necessary to help at any part of the incident management process. 


As your company grows, team structure will change, processes will need to be modified, and new tools will be introduced. It’s important to have ongoing incident management training so the entire team stays up to speed. Run mock incidents or fire drills to practice the incident management flow from identification to resolution and post-incident review. 


Embrace the chaos


Incidents are stressful, but a plan will help them run smoother. Still, there will always be a level of controlled chaos around incidents. Lean into it, stay positive, and do your best to stay out of the way or help.


Don’t skip the post-incident review, and don’t point fingers


Just because you resolved the incident doesn’t mean you can skip the final step of the incident management process: the post-incident review. Get the incident team in the same room or on a call to conduct a proper post-incident review. This gives them a chance to look back on the incident after the dust has settled, collaborate on the next steps, and encourage the team to continuously improve.


Jimmy might have shipped that one line of code that took the entire authentication system down, but instead of focusing on who messed up, focus on what went wrong. Don’t point fingers at poor Jimmy. Maintain a blameless incident culture so that teams can work together to understand what happened, how they responded, and what can be done to prevent future incidents… all without blaming an individual. Focus on what happened, not who did it.


Communicate early and often


Don’t leave customers hanging. Acknowledge the incident with customers as soon as possible, even if you don’t have all of the details yet. As difficult as it is to tell customers something is wrong, the sooner you do it the better. Communicating quickly helps deflect incoming support tickets and maintains trust with your customers. 


Automate parts of your incident management process with Swifteq


It’s hard to predict most incidents, so it’s important to be ready when they occur. The one thing that’s certain is that incidents will happen, and it will often result in an influx of support tickets for the support team to handle.


Having the right tools in place will help ensure your incident management process runs as smoothly as possible. Swifteq can help by automatically merging duplicate tickets during an incident. Duplicate tickets cause duplicate work for the support team. But with Swifteq, you can configure complex rules and criteria to merge duplicate tickets, saving your team valuable time.


Swifteq offers a variety of productivity tools to help you optimize your support team’s Zendesk workflows, which can have a big impact on your overall incident management process. Our Zendesk ChatGPT integration app automatically categorizes and tags important topics in tickets and flags significant customer frustration. This allows you to quickly address issues and improve your team's response to critical incidents.


Request a free demo to see whether Swifteq is the right choice for your business and your helpdesk. 


 


Written by Jake Bartlett Jake Bartlett is a writer for tech companies and customer-centric businesses. He has 13 years of experience working in customer support and success, across various roles. You can find out more about Jake on his website


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