Microsoft botched all aspects of Exchange outage response

Failure to communicate with users shows Microsoft has lots to learn from utilities, says crisis expert

Microsoft blew it Tuesday when its Exchange Online hosted email service went dark for much of the business day, an expert said. But he wasn't referring to Exchange's technical failure.

"Three hundred and sixty-four days of excellent service can be undone on the 365th if a company doesn't communicate effectively," said Gene Grabowski, senior strategist at Levick, a Washington, D.C. firm that specializes in crisis communications.

Grabowski was talking about Tuesday's outage of Exchange Online, the hosted service that left hundreds, if not thousands of companies without email. Exchange Online is an off-premises service bundled with most Office 365 business plans, and also offered separately, and has been a key component in Microsoft's attempt to convince enterprises to adopt the "rent-not-own" software subscription service and shift more infrastructure to Microsoft-run data centers.

Microsoft restored service about nine hours later.

Failure to communicate

Grabowski blasted Microsoft, not for the outage -- those inevitably happen, he said -- but for its lack of communication to customers during the hours their email was unavailable, and even after the problem had been resolved.

Countless Twitter messages Tuesday took the Redmond, Wash. giant to task on the same subject, as did users on a fast-growing discussion thread on Microsoft's support forum, where what little the company shared did appear.

"Down since 8:30am central with no ETA to return to service," Josh Widuptweeted Tuesday five hours after the time he cited.

"[Microsoft] needs to provide better communication about cause, ETA for resolution, and steps to avoid recurrence of similar issues in the future," said someone identified as ISTE_IT on the support forum. "Hearing nothing is very frustrating and does cause customers to be justifiably angry."

"Most utilities have learned what Microsoft still has to learn," said Grabowski. "And Microsoft is the equivalent of a utility. They're vital for business and personal use, and have become for all intents and purposes a utility."

Learn what utilities have learned

Grabowski has advised electric utilities on outage response, and other kinds of organizations and businesses on urgent communications practices, and said Microsoft failed at all three critical components of such messaging when Exchange Online went dark.

"First, you have to get out there with the narrative of what happened and what you're doing about it," said Grabowski. "You have to do that within the first hour, you can't let your customers wait. In your absence, customers will create the narrative, and it will almost always be negative."

Microsoft dropped the ball there: The company didn't publicly message about the outage until 11:07 a.m. PT, five hours after email vanished, and then only in a single tweet to the Office 365 account. Even the tweet didn't describe the problem as the outage it was, at least from customers' perspectives, but called it "email delays."

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."

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