Making the most of downtime


I loaded up a retail website on Thanksgiving day and was surprised to see the site down for maintenance. The message was pretty terse, basically that they were making improvements and to check back later. Sure enough, I came back to the site the next day. Despite my own behavior, I doubt that 100% of the people who saw the message did the same thing. This got me thinking: How can online retailers maximize the chance that people will come back after periods of downtime?

When I saw the message explaining that the site was down, the only options they offered were to call or email your order. For those who simply want to place an order from the catalog, that’s fine. But it leaves no logical path for those who aren’t sure exactly what they need. This group represents a significant number of customers that you risk turning away. So the retailer needs a way to make sure that all visitors know when it’s time to come back, and give them a motivation to do so.

As a solution, I propose that retailers place a simple message on their website when it’s down for maintenance or upgrades. It would say something like: “We’re doing some upgrades right now. If you provide us with your email address, we’ll notify you as soon as we’re back online. We promise not to send you any messages besides that.” Then, in the email that you send when the site is ready, be sure to include a time-limited discount offer, such as $10 off a $50 purchase that’s only good until midnight. Usage can be restricted to once per email address via unique offer codes or left open with reusable coupons, as desired.

Most websites handle their downtime very poorly, driving customers away. The approach that I’ve outlined helps to recapture those sales that would otherwise be lost, as shoppers give up or visit competing sites. Obviously, the best solution is to never have downtime at all, but it’s always a smart idea to have a contingency plan. And while you’re crafting the message to tell people that you’re back online, you might as well give them the opportunity to sign up for your email newsletter, receive your printed catalog, subscribe to your blog, etc. Done properly, the right communication strategy can help reduce the costs of downtime, and even drive revenues if you use the opportunity to build new, lasting relationships with customers.