There it is: The worst customer satisfaction survey ever. The customer lambasted the company, one of your best agents, and your product. You know that this negative customer feedback will make its way to your CEO. As the manager of the support center, you’re immediately on the defensive. You pace around your office, you think of all the ways to retort, and then you stop—this feedback is a gift, right? Perhaps you are looking at this all wrong. Breathe.

Let's say that the customer, in this case, is correct. You knew about the problem three days ago and could have warned them. In many cases, there are ways to get ahead of a problem and of the subsequent negativity. This requires a great deal of transparency—and honesty with customers.

Anticipate and be proactive

Where possible, anticipate and be proactive. Don’t wait for the customer to vent at you—if you can anticipate that your answer will be upsetting to them, acknowledge it. If you have to give someone bad news, set expectations. Don’t sugar-coat it—be straightforward, but own that you know this isn’t what they were hoping for. Make sure you understand not only what they want, but why they want it. Communicate any possible workarounds, even if they don’t exactly achieve what the customer was asking for (or will be asking for after this news).

“I realize this is probably going to be frustrating.”

Proactivity may not prevent a bad customer satisfaction rating, but it will show you care and have done everything you can.

Making nice with negative feedback

And when you haven’t been able to get ahead of the inevitable issues—what should you do to make the feedback meaningful to you and your customers? How should you guide your frontlines to handle negative customer feedback?

  1. Show appreciation. Appreciation is simple. Saying thank you is simple. Remember, you’re feeling gratitude for the free feedback. It gives you data that can contribute to improving your business. What do you say when someone gives you a gift?

    “Thank you. Thanks for taking the time to provide me with this feedback.”

    Simple, right?

  2. Validate their emotions. Problem-solving is great and all, but if someone’s upset, they’re not chemically inclined to listen. Reflecting and showing genuine sympathy for their emotion can help calm the fire and put them in a better space for hearing you out. Create an environment for (possible) success.

    This means you need to accurately identify the customer’s emotion. It’s likely to be frustration, but it might also be anger or disappointment. At worst it's betrayal or rage. Hopefully not, but it can happen.

    It doesn’t really matter if their reaction is based on a misinterpretation of the facts at hand. The customer can be wrong, but their emotions are true, and if you want to salvage the conversation you need to acknowledge and validate them before continuing.

    “I know this has been a frustrating experience for you.”

    “I understand how frustrating this must be.”

    “I would be upset at this situation, too.”

  3. Show that you understand the specifics of this situation. Unless you really don’t know why the customer is upset, you don’t want to put them in the position of having to explain themselves again. That makes it seem like you weren’t listening to begin with.This is why macros and canned answers don’t work. Do the homework of looking at what’s already happened, and show them you get it. This is especially important if the ticket has been newly-escalated to you (as a manager, team lead, or technical expert) to handle the response.

    “I can see how because {our product does X}, it seems like it {should do Y} as well.”

  4. Take appropriate responsibility. If you or the company made a mistake, by all means apologize and take responsibility. If the product failed, apologize for the disruption. If your documentation is incomplete or incorrect, show that you’re taking steps to correct it.

    “I definitely missed your point about X, and I apologize for not reading your message closely enough.”

    “We sincerely apologize for the disruption of your service, and the difficulty it caused for your customers as well.”

  5. Clarify expectations. Where possible, point to documentation, to clarify existing policy or expected product behavior. Be careful about the tone you use here—this isn’t intended to make your customer feel dumb for not reading closely enough; it’s just a teaching moment. By showing your documentation has the answers, you can increase your customer’s confidence that they can find their own answers in the future. Be sure to actually include a link to the document, with guidance to finding the specific passage that clarifies the situation (or quoting it in your response). Again, if your documentation could use clarification, acknowledge that as suggested above.

    “This situation is actually covered by our Terms of Service - in section 2.3. Let’s take a look at that together, so I can answer any other questions you may have.”

  6. Provide next steps, if possible. Include as much information as you can about workarounds if they haven’t been discussed in the ticket already (hopefully, this would already have been addressed before the ticket was solved). Acknowledge the additional effort that would be required to accomplish the workaround, or the gap between what the workaround can do, and what the customer wants.

What if they still hate me?

Chances are, if you’ve done the right steps for a customer in their time of dire need, they are going to be your brand advocate. If not, don’t take it personally. If you’ve just been yelled at on the phone or been cursed at in an email—take a break and reset. You’ve got other customers waiting, and they’re sure to appreciate your support.

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.