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Not everyone likes you. What not to do with negative customer feedback.

The first thing to understand—to really, really understand, not just in your head, but deep down in your bones, is this: feedback is a gift. Even negative feedback.

Negative feedback sucks. It can hurt. You might even get in trouble for it. But it's still a necessary gift.

Feedback is a gift

Why? Think about it: Your customer has gone out of their way to express their feelings about your product or the experience they received. For free. No one paid them to do that. You now have more information than you had before.

They have just provided you with a free service. Companies pay good money to get feedback. You paid nothing, and yet there it is. Think about that for a moment. What should you then feel, when you see a piece of feedback, positive or negative?

Gratitude. That’s right—be empathetic, be grateful. The question is, how do you act on it?

Don’t shoot the messenger; don't delete the message

There are two sides to this. One is how individual agents should respond. The second is how support management can best take advantage of this feedback. And of course, this applies only to legitimate feedback, not nasty hate mail from trolls, bullies, or customers that simply refuse to play nicely.

Here are some ways not to act on it:

  1. Don't ignore it.

  2. Would you? By ignoring the feedback, you’re robbing yourself of a possible opportunity to salvage this engagement. Additionally, you’re leaving the customer unsatisfied, which will make them less likely to trust your service, or to be forgiving the next time they have an issue. At worst, they might disengage entirely and leave you for another company. An exception to this rule would be when the customer has explicitly asked you not to contact them again.

  3. Don't be defensive, sarcastic, or flip.

  4. That’s just pouring gasoline on a fire. It might make you feel good in the moment, but it’s not going to solve anything. And it may just turn a frustrated customer into a loud and influential former customer.

    This includes shifting the blame to someone else. "Engineers, AM-I-RIGHT?" or "Our supplier let us down...again." or "I’d really love to help you, but our policy forbids it." Throwing someone else under the bus just isn’t cool—and by cool I mean, professional. At times, it might be someone else’s fault, but remember where the buck stops. Your customer was depending on your company, and in this interaction, you are the face of your company.

    What should you do if your customer is abusive? It’s unfortunate, but it can happen. If the customer gets really nasty—breaking your published code of conduct, which you should have, the receiving agent should not be the one to respond. Escalate to a manager or team lead who can calmly but firmly let the customer know that they’ve behaved inappropriately.

  5. Don't guilt trip them into changing their response.

  6. “I’m sorry you had a bad experience with our product. I just want to let you know that your ‘Unsatisfied’ rating reflects on my performance, so if you felt that I did okay, would you consider changing your response?”

    It may be that the problem was not due to the support experience, but this is gaming the system, and it encourages dishonest feedback. If you find yourself (or your team) doing this, it’s likely that they feel unfairly judged on things they can’t control—like whether your product happens to do everything that customers want. If this is the case, there’s a deeper conversation to be had about the metrics that are used to judge your support team. Everyone wants sky-high customer satisfaction scores, but that’s meaningless if it’s not an honest customer satisfaction score.

    The only time it’s okay to ask a customer if they’d be willing to change the Bad into a Good is after you’ve had a follow-up conversation with them and they’ve clearly demonstrated that they’re genuinely happy with the outcome. Not just accepting of the outcome, but happy. “Wow! You really turned this around—thanks so much!”

  7. Don't use generic or canned responses.

  8. “We’re sorry you had a bad experience. How can we make it right?”

    This comes from a good place—clearly the support agent wants to help. What it lacks, though, is acknowledgment of what’s come before in the conversation. In many, if not most cases, it’s abundantly clear why the customer is upset—they’ve already told you—and told you what they want in order to be happy. You already know (or should, in most cases), so this kind of response is going to make the customer feel almost as ignored as if you’d actually ignored them. Asking them to explain it again will likely infuriate them.

Remember when I said, don’t ignore negative customer feedback? Don’t ignore it.

Not every customer is going to like you, but you need to know, and you need to know why. If you’re not collecting customer satisfaction ratings on your support interactions, you’re missing out on free customer feedback that your competitors are most likely taking advantage of. Get on it.

Ideally, you get ahead of problems before they grow fangs and come knocking. But when you don’t, and customers communicate angrily, look at negative feedback like this: a gift. Follow these steps to make the most of it.

Download the how-to guide »

Dave Dyson is a Senior Customer Service Evangelist at Zendesk. He's a sci-fi/fantasy/history nerd, internet fact-checker, actor/improviser, and sometime TV theme song cover band member. Find Dave on Twitter: @dave_dyson.