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Microsoft botched all aspects of Exchange outage response

Gregg Keizer | June 27, 2014
Failure to communicate with users shows Microsoft has lots to learn from utilities, says crisis expert

In the interval, as Grabowski warned, users vented their frustrations on Twitter and the support forum thread, with nearly all of their comments negative.

"Second, you must tell customers that you're working on a remedy, and in real time be informing customers as you do," said Grabowski. "If you don't know the cause, tell them that, but share what the situation is."

Power companies and cable TV providers, he pointed out, staff telephone hotlines to take incoming customer calls during an outage. "But you can't just take calls, you must have a way to communicate outwardly through Twitter, email, Facebook, Instagram and other means," Grabowski said. "If possible, you should show and demonstrate visually what you're doing. You need to get out there and communicate."

A hidden dashboard
Microsoft did nothing of the sort, but that was by design. The single source of information — and that was unreliable for many customers — was the "Service Health Dashboard," a Web portal designed to show what Microsoft services, if any, are offline or degraded. But the SHD was available only to enterprise administrators: Individual users cannot see the dashboard.

"Microsoft does that because that's what their customers have told them they want," said James Staten, an analyst with Forrester Research. "IT has told Microsoft, 'I don't want you circumventing me, I don't want you talking to my users.' But the more Microsoft listens to the customer, the more it hurts them. They have to decide whether to do what the [enterprise] customer wants or to do the right thing."

"That's absurd," Grabowski said of the admin-only policy for the dashboard. In the same breath, he knocked the idea of the dashboard. "You shouldn't be sending anyone anywhere," he argued. "They're reaching out to you because they want questions answered, and those answers should be on the platform where customers pose questions."

Other firms, including Google and Apple make service status dashboards public. Admittedly, those companies are more consumer oriented than Microsoft, much more so when it comes to Exchange Online, but Salesforce, which is as business-leaning as Microsoft, offers a publicly-accessible dashboard where users can go, if necessary, to learn some scant details about problems or outright outages.

Experts needed
The third important element in an outage response, Grabowski said, was an expert, someone from the provider — the power utility, or in this case, Microsoft — who would reach out to the media, answer customers' questions online and generally be the "face" of the firm during an emergency.

"Where was their expert?" Grabowski asked. "They needed to have someone to talk to reporters. When the public is critical, an expert is necessary to set them straight in real time. They needed an expert and needed to advertise the fact that they had one."


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