Tuesday 9 February 2016 is the day of the Great Telstra Outage of 2016. And there are some great communications lessons to come from this distinct lack of mobile communications.
By way of background at around lunchtime, mobile telephone services across Australia were disrupted, or more precisely, knocked out across the country. The outage meant users on the Telstra mobile network were unable to make or receive calls for up to three hours, and data services were also affected.
While many may have appreciated the peace and quiet of their mobile phone being ‘off the grid’ for much of the afternoon, there were plenty who were not impressed – including businesses and sole traders who rely on having a working phone line. Unsurprisingly, there was significant angst on social media. There’s nothing quite like the inability to post photos of lunch to bring the country together.
Well that was a scary 8 minutes.. I’ll never forget where I was during the great #Telstra outage of 2016..
— Sunil Daniel (@sgd03) February 9, 2016
Massive Telstra Outage Gives Customers A Taste Of Vodafone Service.
— colley2k16 (@JamColley) February 9, 2016
Telstra mobile network still down despite flood of angry tweets.
— Craig Middleton (@ACommsGuy) February 9, 2016
The words ‘Telstra’ and ‘outage’ were trending across major cities.
— Trendsmap Sydney (@TrendsSydney) February 9, 2016
Let’s face it. Apart from the impact this outage can have on the ‘small guys’, it also has the potential to have a detrimental effect on Telstra. As a publicly listed company and one of Australia’s most highly valued brands, something like this is a big problem.
It doesn’t help when your own Twitter team pokes fun at the issue, when people are losing money as a result of your glitch.
@developerjack nah we just flicked the off switch as a bit of fun ;p – Dani
— Telstra (@Telstra) February 9, 2016
While a big issue, Telstra deserves some praise for the way they handled it as a communication issue. These are the three big lessons to come from the outage.
Sure, it’s embarrassing for a company of Telstra’s size to have an outage like this. However one of the most important rules in crisis communications is to ‘own the issue’. Telstra did this well through their Chief Operating Officer.
First let me say we place the highest priority on the quality of our networks and we’re continually investing to ensure we give our customers the best and most reliable mobile network in the country. That is why we’re incredibly disappointed the outage occurred and deeply sorry for the inconvenience we caused.
One could argue about the sincerity of those words and whether it’s spin – but I heard Telstra’s spokesperson on ABC Radio this afternoon speaking about the issue and use the words “it’s not OK”. Plain language makes it sound much more genuine.
“This is an embarrassing human error. It’s not OK. We do not like causing that level of inconvenience to our customers,” Ms McKenzie said.
I don’t know much about how a mobile phone network functions – I imagine it’s a building full of whirring computers and lots of wires, and of course towers dotted across the landscape. However in Telstra’s statement, they used plain language which articulated the problem clearly. You don’t need an engineering degree to get that this was a big cock-up.
Our mobile network is set up with a number of major connection points (what we call nodes) around the country, which our customers connect to. These nodes are the equipment that essentially manage the flow of voice and data traffic across our mobile network. The outage was triggered when one of these nodes experienced a technical fault and was taken offline to fix. This normally wouldn’t impact services as we have processes in place to make sure any customers currently connected to a node are transferred to another node before it is taken offline. Unfortunately on this occasion the right procedures were not followed and this resulted in customers being disconnected and consequent heavy congestion on other nodes as customers attempted to reconnect to the network.
As soon as we identified what had occurred we worked to address the fault and take action to bring customers back online as quickly possible. In doing so we prioritised voice services, and when these were back online we started adding data services.
Not only does this clearly set out what happened, but also what was being done to fix it.
I do feel sorry for that technician who didn’t follow procedures. They’re probably knocking on the doors of Vodafone and Optus looking for work already.
With so many people (now back online) and baying for Telstra’s blood because of the outage, the company needed to be on the front foot in offering customers a resolution. While people may complain about missed calls and missed business opportunities, the harsh reality is that there isn’t much Telstra can do about that.
However at the same time as they explained the outage of what was being done about about it, they were quick to offer a form of compensation – a day of free data on the Telstra network.
While the outage was short in duration we fully realise the impact it had on our customers, which is why we are offering all of our customers a day of free mobile data this Sunday. Customers don’t need to do anything to receive the free data, it will happen automatically for all of our mobile customers.
They also did a great job in pointing out customers needn’t do anything to get the free data. The only issue I see is that many customers, particularly those with business accounts, may not see any real benefit in free data on a Sunday.
Telstra’s handling of customer service is by no means perfect. I know – I fought them for about two years to get a properly functioning home phone installed in our Sydney home. However Telstra’s response is somewhat refreshing and a lesson in how to communicate during a crisis.
This blog is a personal project and has no link to what I do for a day job. It is a personal viewpoint.