Six ways to manage customer expectations when things are busy

Six ways to manage customer expectations when things are busy
By Diana Potter | On Dec 02, 2021
6 min read

Some years ago, my small team was hit with a series of issues all at once. Multiple team members were out sick, a couple of others had just been through a typhoon and had no power, yet another had a pre-scheduled vacation, and a new product feature was causing a spike in questions.

While the team could have weathered any of these setbacks individually, when they arrived all at once, it was a challenge. We were short-staffed, our support queue was overflowing, and everyone was overwhelmed. This stress bled into our customer interactions — until we realized we needed to take a step back and approach the situation differently.

This is a challenge that strikes support teams frequently. Whether you’re experiencing an unusually busy period, multiple team members are ill, or your team members all need time off because they’re worn down from two years of pandemic life, the business reality is that you still need to support your customers.

I firmly believe that managing your customers’ expectations can go a long way to mitigating the problem, or at least it can give you some breathing room to catch up. But how do you go about doing that?

In this article:

1. Plan ahead

You can’t foresee every situation that might come up, but there’s a reason why entire career disciplines focus on emergency planning. Preparation is the first thing you should do and if you think you don’t have time, you need to make time. 

You don’t need to set loose the support equivalent of a chaos monkey, but you should sit down and think about how you’d handle different situations — both how you’d communicate with customers and what processes your team could follow.

I maintain a high-level emergency plan that outlines what we’ll do based on a 6-point scale:

  1. Everything is fine (not much to call out here).
  2. There is a minor bug with a handful of customers reporting it and they can work around it.
  3. There’s a larger bug with dozens of reports or a handful of reports but those customers are completely stuck.
  4. There is a minor issue but it’s affecting 100% of accounts and causing a large spike in reports.
  5. There is something major affecting all accounts.
  6. The software is down.

My scale is obviously aimed at a software company. If you’re supporting a different type of product or service, think about creating a scale that fits your needs. And then give your team a plan of what they should do, including sample responses, status pages to update, documentation changes, social media copy, and anything else you can think of, for the various situations on your scale.

The middle of a crisis is not the time to figure everything out. Make sure your team has a framework they can follow so they feel empowered to tackle the issue. A plan helps them, helps your customers, and helps you as a leader because it enables your team to be as independent as possible.

2. Set up an auto-response

One of the things you should work into your planning is when and how you’d set an auto-response for any new tickets submitted.

If you typically send an auto-response for every question, make sure it’s something that you can easily edit and that you call out what matters so your customers don’t miss the update. For example, if you usually provide your average response rate, add a bolded section at the top of the message highlighting any delays, and make sure your average response rate reflects what it is currently.

If you don’t normally send an auto-response, set one up. Don’t over-explain the circumstances or apologize for the inconvenience. But do mention there are delays, thank them for their patience, and give an estimated response time.

When possible, give your customers the opportunity to respond if their request is urgent, and then triage your support queue based on their responses. You’ll know your customers best, but in my experience, people tend to be realistic about the urgency based on how the issue affects them. If you’re worried you’ll get too many responses, try providing some categories like damaged packages or login issues. Whatever you’d typically prioritize, give them the option to highlight their issue.

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3. Add a message to your contact form

While an auto-response can be a great tactic, customers are so used to them, they can easily tune them out. So even before a customer submits a ticket, it can help to make sure they know they may experience a delay with their request. I recommend adding a note to your contact form. You could include your response times, thanks for their patience, or a brief statement, such as “we’re experiencing delays.”

Many support platforms have features built-in to help you. Here are a few examples:

  • HubSpot lets you set your own messages, especially with live chat. And you can see an example of how they show response times on their own contact form.
Example of message in contact form

Help Scout example of message in contact form

Intercom example of message in contact form

4. Under-promise and over-deliver

When you’re already running behind, the worst thing you can do is promise a target and then not hit it. That’s why it’s important to under-promise and then over-deliver. And make sure you hit the targets you set.

If you expect that you can reply to messages within 12 hours, I suggest telling your customers it’s 24 hours. It’s much better to beat your estimate than to say it’ll take 12 hours and have it take 18.

The same holds true when you’re promising a fix or another reply. If you can avoid giving specifics that’s great, but if you can’t, always give yourself a buffer.

5. Over-communicate

Depending on the situation, you might need to send multiple messages to your customers. For example, if your software is down or deliveries are extremely delayed, your customers might appreciate receiving several messages with updates during the problem period, rather than a single message when everything is back to normal. If you keep a waitlist for when products will be built and delivered, customers love to receive updates as their position moves up the list.

For an outage, you can let customers know periodically that you’re working on it, even if you have no news. From a customer’s perspective, there’s nothing worse than not hearing anything. As you can imagine, their minds immediately jump to the worst-case scenario. A quick message, even saying there are no updates yet but you’re still here working on it, can allay their fears.

6. Be gracious and empathetic

Everyone you’re talking to is a person with their own worries and concerns. Even though you’re probably having a bad day, they likely are too. Try and remember their humanity, stay calm, and be as responsive as you can.

And embrace empathy. Acknowledge their frustration and genuinely try to help. Don’t apologize insincerely — I hope everyone will strike the words “I apologize for the inconvenience” from their lexicon. Instead, empathize with what they’re feeling. The words, “I understand,” and showing how you understand can be well received. 

Bonus tip: Take care of yourself

While this tip isn’t about setting expectations or communicating with your customers, per se, it’s equally important. You’re not going to resolve issues any faster by allowing yourself to become exhausted. The issue and your customers are important, but so are you. Take a break yourself and also encourage your team to take a break. A walk outside or a few minutes playing a favorite video game can reset your perspective. Remember to pace yourself. Whatever is happening will pass.

In conclusion

Despite your best efforts, issues and delays are going to happen. Make sure you prepare for them and think about how to communicate with your customers. And check out our recent post on preparing for holiday support for other tips.

What are your best tips for handling response delays? Share them on LinkedIn and let us know. And as always, if you’re struggling with a problem or need more information about something, leave a comment on Linkedin or reach out via email. We’d love to help!

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Diana Potter

Diana is a support, success, and experience leader. She’s currently the Head of Customer Experience for Qwilr and previously led customer departments for a number of leading companies. When she’s not writing or helping customers you’ll find her off in the woods taking photos or curled up with a book.

TestBox empowers you to have a self-serve, customer-led experience so you can buy new software and feel confident that you made the right choice. Currently focused on Customer Support, TestBox allows you to test out Zendesk, Freshdesk, HubSpot, Dixa, and other products side-by-side. It takes a matter of minutes to sign up and take these products for a test drive. Find out more at or follow on LinkedIn.