CRM Isn't Everything: Amidst An Outage, American Eagle Tries To Build Customer Trust

American Eagle Outfitters suffered a Web site outage for more than 24 hours on Monday (Aug. 8), but the retailer came up with a clever way to keep customers from feeling completely in the dark. From about 6 a.m. Monday until 7 a.m. Tuesday, the site was unusable for E-Commerce and intermittently unavailable at all. But through most of the outage, customers saw a page headlined "Be Right Back!" that continued: "Leave your E-mail address and we'll give you a heads up when we're up and running. No worries, we won't add you to any lists or bother you in the future."

The retailer wouldn't say how many customers signed up for the notification or whether they received any special offers as an apology for the site being down. But the "leave your E-mail address" tactic is especially interesting because it specifically promised that the E-mail addresses would not be used for anything except notifying customers when the site was back up. That was probably a lost CRM opportunity, but it may have been much more valuable in rebuilding customer trust.

It does appear that American Eagle learned some lessons from last summer's disastrous eight-day outage, when for days after the July 19, 2010, crash the site flashed the message "Sorry. We need a few minutes to re-organize our closet. We promise to be back in a bit with even more." This time, the timeline was shorter and American Eagle's customer-facing response was quicker.

According to Web monitoring service AlertBot, the American Eagle site was apparently down for planned maintenance between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m., after which the site "went back down and continued to intermittently go up and down" until 7 a.m. Tuesday. Shortly after the site went down hard, the E-mail-collecting screen went up.

American Eagle spokesperson Jani Strand wouldn't say what caused the problems, only that problems during planned maintenance "resulted in an unplanned outage between 11:15 a.m. and 5 p.m."

Strand also wouldn't talk about the number of customers who left their E-mail addresses, calling it "competitively valuable information."

But the real value for American Eagle may have come from something more subtle. Although the company ignored complaints on its Twitter feed that the site was down (at least one tweet was nine hours old when the retailer finally responded "Sorry—the site is back up!"), the fact the site itself acknowledged that there was a problem and gave customers a way to interact with it was important. Just being able to do something meant customers would feel like they had at least a little control over the situation.

The customer can now interact with the page, which is a huge step forward. More importantly, this could easily save a non-trivial number of otherwise-lost sales. Say a customer hits the American Eagle site, looking to purchase a sweater. If that customer encounters a typical static "Sorry. We're down now. Please try back later" message, there is a good chance she/he will decide to try a competitor's site, not knowing how long the outage will last.

But if that customer has an opportunity to give an E-mail address with the promise that an E-mail will be sent the moment the site returns, a healthy percentage of prospects might wait a few hours to see what happens. But this strategy truly requires a very fast E-mail blast the instant the site returns. If the customer happens to learn that the site was back up before that E-mail is received, it may hurt the trust. (Yes, this is problematic, as a down site may appear to be back up briefly while it's being repaired. 'Tis a necessary risk.)

And by explicitly calling out the fact that customers' privacy would be preserved if they left their E-mail address, the retailer almost certainly made them feel like they had even more control. (That's an even bigger deal in the wake of high-profile E-mail breaches this spring involving Sony and Epsilon—especially because American Eagle wasn't one of the dozens of retailers whose customer E-mail addresses were mishandled by Epsilon.)

Making customers feel a little more in control builds trust, even in the middle of a Web site failure. And that means the next time American Eagle asks those customers for an E-mail address or other CRM information, they'll probably be a lot more likely to hand it over.