You need to prep your business for an emergency. Last month, things were humming along smoothly, when stomach pain sent me to the ER. What seemed like a routine appendectomy turned into multiple surgeries and procedures, putting me fully out of commission for 9 days. Even after returning home, I wasn’t feeling too great and needed another week to recover, plus I’ve got to take it easy for a few more weeks.
I’m not telling you this to make you feel sorry for me, I’m telling you this, because, ironically enough, I had been outlining a series of posts about prepping your business for vacation and taking time off, so a two-week vacation would totally be possible. Not that my time in the hospital or recovering felt like a vacation.
But while prepping for a planned vacation and prepping for an unexpected emergency are similar in some regards, they’re also entirely different in others. You never know when you’ll have an emergency, and when you do, it’s important to focus on the emergency itself–which is why this is a bare-bones, here’s-what-you-need-to-do-to-have-a-business-to-come-back-to plan.
Getting this set up before an emergency arises will help you take your mind off work, and help you keep your mind where it needs to be. Whether that be recovering from an accident or illness, grieving, supporting loved ones, whatever it is you need to be doing–which is not answering emails or doing client work unless that helps you in some way. Here’s how to prep your business for an emergency.
Find someone to be your backup person
This is going to be the hardest part, but it’s the most crucial. Your backup person can be anyone, a paid VA, a friend, your significant other, as long as they have the basic know-how to implement the rest of the steps outlined in this post. While a family member can be your backup, remember that an emergency that affects you may also affect them, so it may be better to have a third-party be your backup.
My backup is the awesome Natalia Real over at Website Superhero (you may have heard from her while I was in the hospital or during one of my vacations if you emailed me). Because she’s also a developer, I know she can answer a lot of my clients’ questions if a problem arises while I’m unavailable. Likewise, I have her back if she ever needs me.
The key to a good backup is someone whom you trust to do things like check and/or answer your emails, and let clients for active projects know what’s going on in a professional way. But don’t worry, even someone who doesn’t understand your business can do this if you prep a few email responses for them to copy and paste.
Of course, your backup needs to know that they’re you’re backup, so don’t just assume that someone will cover for you. Talk to them about it, so they know what is expected of them should an emergency arise, and make sure that they’re willing and capable of stepping in.
Create a emergency procedure doc of instructions
Now’s the time to get your instructions together, so whoever is your backup can access them easily. Ideally, this document should be stored on the cloud, so that you can access it from anywhere and any device. All you need to do in the case of an emergency is send a quick message with a link to the document to your backup person.
I recommend keeping this email as a draft in your email. Here’s an example:
I’ve had an unexpected emergency pop up and could really use your help! As we talked about before, I have emergency procedure documents for you to follow, which you can access here [link]. If something comes up that is not covered in the documents, please use your best judgement.
I expect to be offline until _____.
Then if an emergency comes up, all you need to do is give an approximate return date and hit send from any device. The rest of the instructions will be in the master document of emergency instructions.
So what should this emergency procedure doc include? It depends a bit on your business, but here are the basics:
- Email auto-responder scripts
- Email login and checking/reply instructions
- Project management system login and client notification instructions
- Optional: social media logins and reply instructions
For most of us, the big things are going to be letting clients know that you’re unavailable but will be back, and responding to urgent or important emails. Beyond that, unless you’re gone for months, the other things can normally wait.
The thought of leaving my email unattended for a week makes my hair turn gray. Having an auto-responder in place that answers basic questions, gives instructions, or just lets people know they need to be patient helps ease my mind. As part of your master document, include an email auto-responder template that your backup can implement as soon as they hear from you. The auto-responder doesn’t have to be overly-detailed about your situation, but can include instructions to seek help elsewhere if they have an urgent problem, so that they get taken care of, you can relax.
Try this one out:
Subject: Out of the office due to an emergency
Thank for emailing. I’m currently unavailable due to an unexpected emergency. I hope to return by _____.
If you are inquiring about a new project, or are a returning client seeking help, I will get back to you as soon as I am able.
If you need immediate assistance, please contact NAME [link]. Do note that NAME is not my employee, and any work you hire her to do will be billed separately by her and subject to her terms.
Thank you for your patience and understanding while I am away.
Keep it short and simple, and don’t say more than you want to. It’s no one’s business what your emergency is unless you want to share that information.
For me, having my backup check my emails and head off any client problems is the biggest stress relief when I’m out of commission. While my auto-responder does a good job of telling people I am not available, if you have a more antsy or difficult client, sometimes a non-automated response can head off any problems. You can have your backup use this email template:
I wanted to let you know that your email has been received, but that YOUR NAME is unavailable due to an emergency. She will be happy to assist you upon her return (expected on or around _____), but if you need immediate assistance with your _____ you can contact NAME [link]. You will likely need to sign a new contract with NAME and she will bill you separately from YOUR NAME, but she should be able to take care of you!
If you have any questions, I will do my best to answer in YOUR NAME’S absence.
Although this email says almost the same thing as the auto-responder, it’s more likely to be read because it’s not automated, and because it’s not automated, a grumpy or antsy client is more likely to feel taken care of because their emails are getting to someone, even if that person is only able to direct them to a third-party or tell them when you’ll be returning.
Project management system
I was actually between client projects when I had my emergency, which was quite convenient. But that was a bit of a fluke, and I wouldn’t count on that ever happening again. Instead, it’s important to plan for your emergency happening right when you’re busiest.
To keep things simple, I strongly recommend that you use one, and only one, project management system. If you are using Asana with one client, and Basecamp with another, and Trello with yet another–there’s no way for your backup person to know where to login and tell clients what’s happening unless you are constantly on top of updating your emergency master document. Which, you know, is unlikely, because it’s one of those things that we forget to do.
Instead, keep all your client projects under one project management system, so that you can simply share a login link with your backup person and they only have one place to go to see what projects you have active, and inform those clients that things will be put on hold.
Depending on how long the emergency takes, a bit of buffer room scheduled into your projects can help keep thing from getting too off-course. But if you’re out of commission for a while, even the most buffered projects can run over. Here are a few script options for your backup person to share with active clients, depending on how long you’ll be away.
My name is BACKUP NAME, and I’m contacting you on behalf of YOUR NAME. Unfortunately, YOUR NAME has had an emergency pop up and will be unavailable for the next week. She says not to worry, your project should still launch on time, she just won’t be able to work on it or answer questions for the next week or so while she deals with the emergency.
Thank you for your patience and understanding.
If you’re going to be gone long enough that the project timeline is thrown off, have your backup share this email script:
My name is BACKUP NAME, and I’m contacting you on behalf of YOUR NAME. Unfortunately, YOUR NAME has had an emergency pop up and will be unavailable until after ______. She realizes that this throws off your launch date, and apologizes for the inconvenience. When she is back, she will get in touch with you to work out a new launch date and address any concerns you have.
Thank you for your patience and understanding.
Sometimes, you just need to drop a project altogether because the emergency is that big. That’s fine, just have your backup use this script:
My name is BACKUP NAME, and I’m contacting you on behalf of YOUR NAME. Unfortunately, YOUR NAME has had an emergency and will be unable to finish your project. As soon as she is able to get back online (expected after _____) she will send you your files and an appropriate refund. She apologizes for this inconvenience, and recommends you contact NAME [link] to complete your project.
Thank you for your patience and understanding.
Of course, depending on how you keep your files, you may be able to have your backup person send files and give an appropriate refund–but if not, simply take care of it as soon as you are able. Most clients will be extremely understanding as long as you let them know what’s going on.
If you are very active on social media and get legitimate questions on it, you may include instructions to your backup person on how to manage your social media accounts. But if you mostly just get retweets and non-urgent questions or comments, do yourself a favor and just forget about social media during your emergency. Really. No one will die if you don’t thank someone for tweeting your article, or ignore a tag on Facebook.
But if you do feel like you need your backup person to reply to questions on social media, a simple script will help them out:
Hey @NAME, YOUR NAME has an emergency and can’t respond right now, I’ll make sure she sees this so she can answer your question when she returns!
Then your backup person can simply create a document with links to the important questions on social media for you to respond to when you are able.
Alternatively, you can have your backup person post a notice for you on social media for you letting people know that you’re not available.
I am out of the office taking care of an emergency. I’ll reply to any questions on social media when I return after ____.
You may need to include instructions on how to pin posts if your backup person isn’t social media savvy–because you’ll want to notice pinned to the top of your Twitter profile so that it is easily seen.
Whether or not you want to alert your newsletter subscribers to your emergency is up to you. If you schedule newsletters in advance, you may not need to do anything (because the emails will continue to go out whether you’re around or not). But if your list is used to hearing from you every week and you don’t schedule your emails in advance, you may choose to let your list know that they won’t be hearing from you for a while.
Have your backup person send out a quick email to your list (or segment if appropriate) using this template:
Subject: You won’t be hearing from me for a bit
Since you’re used to hearing from me each week, I wanted to drop you a note and let you know that I won’t be sending my regular emails out for a while.
I have an emergency to attend to, and I expect to be back on _____, but don’t worry if you don’t hear from me right after that as I’ll be catching up on things.
I’ll let you know when I’m back, and when I will resume my weekly emails.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for something to read, here are a few of my most popular blog posts:
- Blog post 1 [link]
- Blog post 2 [link]
- Blog post 3 [link]
You don’t have to go into details (unless you want to), and you don’t need to link to blog posts unless you feel it’s appropriate, but giving your list a heads up if they’re expecting to hear from you keeps them from wondering where you went when they’re supposed to be getting a monthly challenge or weekly email. And you never know, you might get tons of sweet well-wishes back.
Let’s be honest: emergencies suck. But they can suck a lot less if you prep your business for an emergency beforehand. Remember to keep it simple. You don’t need to go into details about the emergency, you don’t need to have someone respond to every tweet or sort through all your emails. You just need the urgent things taken care of, and to let clients know when you’ll be back. That’s it.
Get someone on board to be your backup person (and you can be hers), create a master document with instructions for all the big stuff, create some templates for auto-responders and emails, keep your projects under one project management system, and only worry about legitimate questions and problems on social media. When you prep your business for an emergency you’ll be more equipped to handle the emergency itself, instead of trying to juggle the emergency and business at the same time. Focus on what’s important, and don’t worry about the rest. Your business will be there when you get back.