Handling Negativity in Customer Support

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Currently, I’m at the first ever SupConf, a conference for support professionals. I gave a talk about dealing with negativity in customer support. Here’s a complete recap of everything I discussed. The full slide deck can be found here. The video is embedded at the end of this post.

Talking about negativity with a bunch of support professionals is a bit weird. We’re a pretty positive group. After all, we got into this profession because we wanted to help people.

Still, one constant with building things (particularly online) is that your customers are going to tell you what they think good or bad.

To start, I thought I would share two negative interactions I’ve had with users across WordPress.com as a support professional. I’ve had the opportunity to work in public forums, private email, and live chat. The overwhelming majority of interactions have been positive, but there have been a few negative ones.

The first interaction I want to share occurred after we launched a new post editor across WordPress.com. I was working with users to fix bugs and make improvements to this new editor when I hit this note from a user.

A quick example of a user interaction gone awry

That stung a bit. After all, my job is to ensure users have the best possible experience across WordPress.com. Clearly, I was failing in this instance.

While this interaction was a bit hard to swallow, the feedback was still about a thing not about me or specific to my actions. I was able to stomach it without too much trouble.

Contrast that interaction with the following one which I received after I worked with a user through private email. When users contact us through customer support, we send off a feedback form so they can rate their experience as a green, blue, or red robot and provide optional comments. In this case, I got a red robot and a particularly stinging comment.

An example of a stinging comment in customer support

Compared to the first comment, this one was about me and my actions. It hurt.

I share these particular interactions to illustrate a larger concept. As we’re building products, we’re inevitably going to run into users that aren’t happy with what we’re building. No matter how hard we dogfood our products or test what we build, we can’t permanently eliminate unhappy users.

As the front lines of the company working directly with our users, we need to learn how to deal with negativity if we’re going to have a long and successful career as support professionals.

Today, I want to talk about strategies to help you and your team cope with negativity they will face at one time or another. We’re going to walk through three strategies for three specific timeframes starting with preparing for negativity ahead of time, then confronting it head on, and finally addressing it after the fact.

Strategy #1: Preparing Ahead of Time

The first strategy we’re going to talk about today is rehearsing objections. This is something we can do to prepare ahead of time before a negative interaction even occurs.

Rehearsing objections to prepare for negativity in customer support

At Automattic, we do this through asking rude questions about a new product or feature we’re going to launch that might attract polarizing opinions. We start an internal p2 post (our version of email) with the purpose of thinking up as many rude questions as possible.

Dream up some rude questions exercise

In reality, the questions aren’t “rude” at all. We’re not implying that our customers are rude in any way. The term “rude” just gets everyone into the mindset that this change could inconvenience a few of our users, and we should take that into account.

An example question might be like the following:


Or, we might say something like “Why does it take three clicks now instead of two to do XYZ?” These questions are completely valid. These are things we need to be discussing. The threads really have three purposes.

Benefits of

First, it forces everyone to confront the fact that some of our users might not like the change we’re making. As we mentioned before, this is inevitable. Confronting that fact ahead of time prevents everyone from looking at the situation with rose-colored glasses.

Second, we can discuss the rationale for the change. In the example above, we can talk to our designers and developers and discuss the accessibility standards we adhered to in the development process. We can discuss the vision for a particular change and tie it back to how it impacts our overall mission.

Lastly, we can rehearse our answers and get everyone on the same page. It’s not about creating robots in support that copy and paste the same snippets to our users. It’s about creating a consistent support experience so that if you contact us through email one day and then live chat the next, your getting a similar answer around our products and future changes.

So, that’s rehearsing objections, which is a strategy you can use with your team ahead of time to prepare for big changes. Next, let’s discuss a tactic for dealing with negativity in the moment. Our second strategy is maintaining an appropriate positivity ratio.

Strategy #2: Balancing Negativity

Maintaining an appropriate positivity ratio in customer support

At the top here, I shared two negative interactions I’ve had with users in customer support. Now, I would like to share just a small snippet from a very positive interaction I had helping someone at WordPress.com. I went back and forth helping a user to setup a theme providing GIFs and screenshots. Ultimately, they replied with this (small snippet):


The takeaway-they were showing family and friends my support emails to demonstrate just how helpful I had been. This kind of interaction is exactly what led me to pursue a career in customer support. This response left me with a huge smile on my face.

I was recently reading To Sell Is Human by Dan Pink. Part of the book discussed door-to-door salespeople. When you’re selling products door to door, you’re going to experience a heck of a lot of no’s. How do you keep your head up amongst that level of negativity?

Pink mentioned some research on positivity ratios-the number of positive interactions to negative ones. If the ratio is really high (say 10/1), you’ll operate with rose-colored glasses on thinking nothing can go wrong (not necessarily realistic as we discussed above). A ratio of 1/1 is too pessimistic (think glass half empty). 3/1 was just about right.

We don’t need to focus too specifically on the exact ratio. We do need to provide support professionals with tools to boost their positivity if they feel themselves slipping down the negativity slope. Here are four strategies we use at WordPress.com to do just that.

Strategies for maintaining an effective positivity ratio

  1. Happy file. On an individual level, every Happiness Engineer can setup a happy file in Simplenote or wherever they prefer-it’s just for them. In the file, they’ll copy and paste amazing interactions just like the one I showed above. When they feel down during the day, it’s a quick way to pick themselves back up.
  2. Peer reviews. Between two Happiness Engineers, we do peer reviews a few times a year. If I’m the reviewer, I’ll read through 15 or so interactions from the reviewee. I’m looking of areas for improvement of course, but I’m also looking for things they’re doing really well. During their day-to-day, a Happiness Engineer might not realize that they handle XYZ situation really well. As a reviewer, I can highlight areas for improvement but also bring up things they’re doing really really well (and might not be aware of).
  3. Spartan kudos. On a team-wide level, we do something called Spartan Kudos (the team I’m on is called Sparta). At the end of every month, one person is responsible for collecting all of the green robots for each person on the team (there are 7 of us total). Their job is to read through all of the green robots with awesome comments and pick out the best one for each person. If you forget about how awesome your teammates are, this is an easy, quick reminder.
  4. Happiness #hugs. On a Happiness-wide level, we aggregate awesome comments from our users and post them to a company-wide p2 with the hashtag #hugs. Anytime you’re having a bad day, it’s easy to view the tag feed on the site and get a huge boost.

Strategy #3: Mastering Explanatory Style

Finally, let’s talk about the last strategy—explanatory technique or how you explain negative interactions after they happen.

Learning how to explain negative situations away after the fact

There are two major ways we can look at a negative interaction after the fact. First, we can look at it as permanent (it’s not going away), pervasive (everyone feels this way), and personal (there’s a part of me that plays into this). When you look at a negative interaction as something that’s permanent, pervasive, and personal, you feel like you have little control over your environment. Things are happing to you (again, from To Sell is Human by Dan Pink).

Explaining things as permanent, pervasive, and personal leads to feeling helpless

Let’s take the original example above with the post editor as a quick example.

Was that permanent? No, we’re always going to ship updates to the editor.

Was it pervasive? No, we had users that loved the new editor and thought it was awesome.

Was it personal? No, it was about a thing not about me.

The alternative to permanent, pervasive, and personal is temporary, specific, and external.

Explaining things as temporary, specific, and external leads to feeling in control

In this light, negative interactions become more manageable and actionable. First, negative interactions probably aren’t the norm (if it is, you’re doing something wrong). Second, it’s specific usually to a certain product or “thing.” Lastly, it’s external. It’s not about you or anything you are doing. It’s about a thing.

How do we put this into practice? At WordPress.com, I encourage Happiness Engineers to do personal reviews strictly of red robots (negative reviews) every so often (really, as often as your schedule allows). The purpose is two-fold.

First, I’m looking for areas I could have improved in the interaction (details I missed, ways I could’ve improved the service, etc).

Second, I’m practicing my self-talk so that these interactions don’t feel personal about me. This “practice” is what prepares support professionals to stomach a wave of negativity they might run into when navigating the queues.

To recap, some people are going to hate what you build. That’s just the cost for shipping things out into the world. If your product is great enough, you’re going to end up with a polarized customer base that either love what you’re building or hate it.

Some people are going to hate what you build. That's the cost of making things.

We can arm support professionals with ways to handle that negativity though. There are three ways in particular. First, we can prepare ahead of time with rehearsing objections. Second, we can tackle negativity in the moment by maintaining appropriate positivity ratios. Finally, we can arm them with tools to stomach negative interactions after the fact by mastering explanatory style.


A huge thanks to the folks at SupConf for allowing me to speak at this awesome conference!

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