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  • Marnie Suss

how to adapt and build products for a customer in crisis

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

One of the most important lessons in crisis management I learned from a 6 year-old girl in Norman, Oklahoma.

In 2013, one of the largest tornadoes in history tore through Moore, Oklahoma directly hitting an elementary school. The impacts were devastating and the heartbreak unimaginable for the community. I traveled to Oklahoma with Save the Children United States (US), an international organization focused on protecting children in emergency contexts, to create a child friendly space in the local assistance center in Norman, Oklahoma.

One day, I was sitting and drawing a girl from a town hit by the tornado. She wanted to draw things that made her happy, scared, and sad. So we sat on floor mats and we drew. She drew her dog. Then a tornado. Then she stopped. She did not know how to draw what made her sad. She explained that her dad had recently lost his job, and he was really sad, and that made her sad.

This interaction taught me one of the most important lessons: people arrive as they are to a crisis and for many the crisis is just one of many, layered circumstances they endure.

Most of us have experienced a personal crisis or a bad day. These experiences can influence how we perceive and navigate the world, relationships, interactions with people, and how we use a product or service.

Which leads me to a concept I’ll call the “Customer in Crisis Scale” (and, another made up term!)

Use the “Customer in Crisis scale” to understand the strength of your product or service

The “Customer in Crisis Scale” considers the customer’s state of mind, particularly in various states of duress. Whether they are mildly annoyed or experiencing intense stress this shapes how they will engage with your product or service.

A chart showing an arrow showing increase from left to right illustrating the increase of stress a customer may experience during a crisis.

Companies can assess whether their product or service will endure a customer’s experience in various states, by asking similar questions to:

  • Has the product/service been tested by people in a rush?

  • Will customers be able to use the product easily if they lack focus?

  • Does the product require a significant amount of time and effort?

  • How much friction will a customer tolerate under pressure?

  • Why has the customer’s risk tolerance changed?

  • Why is the customer’s attitude changing toward the product or service?

  • Is there a macro or micro shift in consumer behavior?

The strongest version of a product or service will be resilient to the fluctuations of a "customer in crisis."

Adapt and build products/services using Customer in Crisis Scale.

Following the collapse of a building in the East Village in New York City, I was tasked with connecting residents with any belongings found in the debris. I received several calls from one resident, who was understandably distraught. She lost her home and generations of photos and family heirlooms in the collapse. She asked if she could sift through the debris or go to the site where the hazardous debris would be discarded to search for any fragments. Unfortunately, due to health and safety reasons we could not allow residents on site. However, I said to her any valuables found on site would be saved and logged. I coordinated a process with the local NYPD precinct to provide a direct line to the community affairs officers for residents to contact. It was simple process, but it cut down a fraction of bureaucracy for the grieving residents. It helped to alleviate frustration and allow them to shift their focus on their recovery.

When people are in high stress situations their cognitive abilities are impaired. It can impact a customer’s ability to communicate, digest information, make rational decisions or successfully use a product/service.

Taking into account these factors when reviewing your product/services’ process flows, product features, and support mechanisms can result in increased success over time. These changes may include one less notification, one less box to check, or reduced setup time from seven (7) minutes to four (4) minutes.

So, after you pressure test your product/service with focus groups, surveys, and research, and all the rigorous product design steps, try applying the customer in crisis scale to test if it's as seamless and easy to use as your data indicates. You might just find a hidden point of friction to change and improve your product/service for all your customers.

Cover Image: A card from one of the children we supported in Norman, Oklahoma following the 2013 tornado.



Calvin Drayton
Calvin Drayton
Feb 28, 2023

In some of my numerous experiences I have found that sometimes people are so defeated that they just “Give Up” and move on. This could be attributed to a number of the factors referenced on your scale.

Communication has worked for me numerous times, listening and understanding their issue and being truthful with your response and effort to resolve their problem.

Marnie Suss
Marnie Suss
Feb 28, 2023
Replying to

So true. Sometimes we don't know what roadblock might be the "one too many" before they give up or move on.

It's amazing to see the change that can happen when people listen, understand and communicate. I saw you resolve so many complex issues by doing just that.

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