HubSpot’s excellent apology for its recent outage

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HubSpot products failed for much of last Thursday. (Since today is April Fools’ Day, I want to emphasize — this is over, but it really did happen.) The company’s apology email was sufficiently straightforward, clear, and contrite that two different people sent it me with complimentary notes.

So let’s take a look at what HubSpot wrote and why it made a positive impression.

HubSpot’s apology and explanation

My commentary follows each section in the email.

From: The HubSpot Team <TheHubSpotTeam@hubspot.com>
Subject: HubSpot Outage Update
Date: March 29, 2019 at 3:16:44 PM PDT

Hi xxx,

We’re sorry. HubSpot’s only mission is to help businesses grow better, and today we weren’t able to do that for you and many of our customers.

Commentary: There are so many ways to do this wrong, and HubSpot did it right. The subject line is straightforward. The opening sentence is “We’re sorry.” And the apology goes to the people most affected — the customers. It is not effusive or defensive — it just is. Every apology should start like this.

What Happened

On the morning of March 28 EDT, we experienced an issue with a critical infrastructure system that supports many of the tools that our customers rely on. It caused widespread delays across much of our core functionality, including email, pages, sales tools, reporting and CRM tools.

These processing delays resulted in further issues for customers attempting to use the tools.

For you, this meant that you may have experienced delays across HubSpot and were unable to use parts of your HubSpot functionality.

Commentary: First notice this one simple thing: there is a heading in this email. In fact, the whole email is segmented with headings. This makes it far easier to read and parse. This is best practice for a complex email, and an apology and update is certainly no time to go back to imposing blocks of text.

Directly after the very brief apology, we get a no-bullshit description of what happened and what it meant to customers. This description is clear and non-apologetic, because they got the apology out of the way already. So now you know what happened.

Our Response

At this point, we had to make the decision on where we wanted to direct our processing power, either between restoring key data points that were at risk, or enabling customers to use the tools but abandoning the data. We made the decision to focus our efforts on restoring as much data as possible.

This decision meant that it has taken us longer than we would have liked to fully recover.

We also know that many of you were often left waiting for a response longer than we would have liked. The entire HubSpot team has been working tirelessly to solve the issue and to give you the communication you deserve. In the times when we didn’t have reliable updates to give you, we didn’t want to make any promises that we couldn’t keep. We understand the frustration that you must have felt, and we hear you.

As of 5:00 PM EDT, we have been able to restore the affected system and have been working throughout the day to catch up on all of the data. This process will continue until we have been able to fully restore all of the functionality and catch up all of our systems.

Commentary: You can take issue with the decisions that HubSpot made here. If I read the dates right, their system was out of commission for nearly two whole days. But with this description, you have a clear understanding of what they did and why they did it. The tone is more regretful, as it should be, since they clearly took a longer time to restore functionality that they would have liked, and it did affect people. The lack of updates was likely similarly frustrating, but they do apologize for it.

Next Steps

We have identified the root cause of the issue and are working on our end to prevent this from happening again. We aspire to be remarkable, reliable and always helpful. We know we didn’t live up to that commitment over the past 24 hours.

In the coming days we will be running a full retrospective of what caused this issue and our response. To give you to the transparency you deserve, we’ll publish these findings publicly in an in-depth post that provides more information about the cause of this issue, as well as the steps we’re taking to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

We know that the timing of this, at the end of the month and the quarter, makes this situation especially painful for you, our customers. Thank you for sticking with us on our mission to help millions of organizations grow better, and as we try to grow better ourselves.

We will be working tirelessly in the coming days to understand if there is any further impact on any of our customers.

Best,

The HubSpot Team

Commentary: Now, after the description of what happened, comes the promise that the company will clarify the causes and what they learned. If I were a HubSpot customers, I’d be paying close attention to how well live up to that promise. It’s also nice that they acknowledge that the end of the quarter is a worse than usual time to have a problem

The whole thing is less than 500 words. Brevity is crucial in an email like this, because you want people to read it to the end. More explanation might make somebody at HubSpot feel better, but it would be unlikely to make customers feel any better.

Don’t make thing worse when you communicate a problem

You can quarrel with what happened here. You can believe that HubSpot should not have had this problem, or that it should have handled it differently. No matter what they did, though, somebody would decide it was wrong.

For the communications team, though, the challenge is to explain what they did. That team did its job the best way possible. And that makes the path back to earning customers’ trust a little easier.

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