How would your business cope with a crisis?

The online retailer ASOS had their web site back up and taking orders around 48 hrs after a recent fire at their distribution warehouse in Barnsley damaged some 20% of the £159m stock held there and caused them to shut down the web site and stop taking online orders.

Warehouse Fire

Thankfully, no-one was injured and potentially things could have been a lot worse.

However, there are some lessons here for almost every business about dealing with a crisis, whether online or not…

1) Keep your Disaster Recovery/Business Continuity Plan Up To Date
It is probably no co-incidence that ASOS got things back on track so quickly after this potential disaster. In 2005, their Hemel Hempstead warehouse was damaged by a nearby gas explosion, so it is likely that some of the staff and management will have already had the experience of working through a similar scenario.

2) Don’t overlook the obvious risks
These days with many businesses having a variety of online assets and taking orders online, it is easy to focus on technology risks when looking at business continuity. The ASOS story demonstrates that it is often more prosaic problems that are the real risk to businesses. We often see businesses obsessing over web security and firewall configurations when more obvious risks like fire, flooding/water damage or theft are overlooked.

Remember that In the real world, your business is much more at risk from a disgruntled employee than a Russian hacking outfit, the NSA or Chinese state security.

3) Test your Disaster Recovery/Business Continuity Plan
We don’t know if ASOS regularly tested their Disaster Recovery/Business Continuity Plan, but most organisations don’t. Speak to anyone who has been involved in a real crisis and you will soon find out how valuable your untested plan is. This often starts with not having access to the plan in the first place!

No-one is suggesting you should set fire to your warehouse to see how everyone reacts, but you could shut down a server, test manual procedures and processes, find out how your employees react in an emergency situation and refine your procedures accordingly.

4) Communicate
So you have developed your plan, tested it as best you can for a number of scenarios and you review and update it regularly. So far, so good. Now you have to make sure everyone knows where it is kept, is familiar with what is in it and knows what their roles and responsibilities are.

Disaster never strikes at a convenient time. Don’t bank on the management ‘A’ team being on duty or available to step and take the reins. Often how a business recovers from a major emergency depends on the action taken by the people who happen to be on duty when it occurs. All personnel should be regularly advised of their expected roles and responsibilities. Updates and reviews should be disseminated to all staff and staff reviews should include checking familiarity with disaster recovery/business continuity planning.

4) Almost any event is a PR opportunity
ASOS lost some stock (insured) and a weekend of trading (presumably also insured to some extent), but then again the brand has received acres of media coverage. It would be interesting to see their analytics over the immediate period around the fire and weeks after the event. We’d be willing to bet there will be lots of curious traffic from those who had never heard of ASOS and a lot of lapsed customers will have been prompted to revisit the site by the coverage hitting mainstream media channels.

It might be that the spike in traffic won’t translate into sales if their offering isn’t good enough for consumers. However, if your brand is going to be in the press for almost any reason (with some obvious exceptions), and you’ll be getting some extra traffic to your site, you might as well take full advantage.

Most organisations don’t fully appreciate the value of a Disaster Recovery/Business Continuity Plan until a disaster strikes.

No-one thinks they or their organisation will be the victim of a disaster – and you will have more pressing operational matters to contend with on a day-to-day basis. However, with a little effort and some planning you can go a long to ensuring that if your company does have to cope with an unexpected crisis, it won’t be terminal.

Like backups, Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity planning are boring jobs that no-one relishes. However, if you don’t do it, test it, update it, and ensure everyone knows what’s in it – don’t be surprised if you don’t have a business when the unexpected happens!

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