Match the Situation

Years ago I emailed Zappos support because I made a mistake in a product review and wanted to correct it, which wasn’t possible on the website. My email was two quick sentences. The response was 5 paragraphs, most of which were unrelated to my question, and it buried the answer within a middle sentence of the third paragraph.

This approach can ruin a customer experience. A great support interaction matches the customer’s situation and mindset. Great support is tuned to a customer’s particular context and avoids relying on a simplistic routine since routines, while efficient, can often miss what’s really happening. There are three common examples I like to think about that help make this idea concrete: simple questions, rambling stories, and lists of questions.

Simple questions

Plenty of support interactions don’t require deep, careful investigation nor a precise tone. Some customers just have a simple question that you know the answer to. They’re in search of the missing puzzle piece and it’s your responsibility to provide as clear an answer as possible.

Yes, you may want to build rapport, prove you’re not a bot, or draw the customer’s attention to something which benefits them. That’s all fine, but it’s not what the customer asked. Leading with any of that information puts the focus on what you want, not what they need.

When confronted with a simple question I make sure the answer is the very first thing in my email. This builds trust as the customer knows their needs are my priority. Plus, it can diffuse a customer’s confusion or frustration since the first thing they read solves their problem. Once you solve their problem they’ll be a lot more inclined to listen to what else you have to share. No customer should have to read through a multi-paragraph email to find the part that answers their straightforward question.

Rambling stories

Eventually every inbox gets a rambling email that takes you on a journey. These are those stream-of-consciousness recreations of what the customer was doing whenever they ran into trouble. For better and for worse you have all the details; your goal, no matter the story, is to zero in on what’s relevant.

Often what starts as a long story only gets longer with each reply, so focus is important. It also helps to be patient; don’t pressure yourself to engage with each plot twist. Just find where the customer is stuck and reinforce the next steps they can take. Their story is also an opening to be personable. Don’t force it, but often you can find a nugget within the stream that helps humanize your service.

One way to approach these long-winded messages is to selectively quote from the email. Maybe the full note is 2,000 words. That’s ok. Pull out the three or four sentences that get to the heart of their question and either echo that language back to the customer or quote it inline in your response. It’s a gentle way to bring order to their rambling and indicate where you’re focusing your attention.

Lists of questions

Every once in a while you get an email that’s just a long list of questions. Often they’re numbered but sometimes they just run one right after the other in a big, epic paragraph. These are tough. No one wants to write out answers to 20+ questions and I’d bet few people truly want to read such a lengthy response.

When confronted with a long list of questions the challenge is to guide the customer to what will best help them, even if that doesn’t fully address each question in their list. Think of the themes that connect all their questions and find a way to start them on a path toward confidence and self-sufficiency. Their questions likely tell you a lot about their goals and you just have to nudge them along.

This is where guides and getting started tutorials are useful. It’s best when you can help the customer enough to get started while connecting them to a resource that will carry them the rest of the way. If you can’t help them make that step you’re bound to get another list of questions next week.

Wrapping up

The last thing you want is to slip into autopilot and churn out replies based in nothing more than habit. Sure, macros and predefined replies have their place but even those are best when they’re flexible enough to be customized to the situation. Guidelines like what I describe above help avoid the tendency to fall into routine and keep the focus on the customer.

Each of the three approaches above come from a common theme: the best support is tailored to the individual customer. No individual response is the categorical Best Response for every interaction. It’s all about how you gauge the customer’s own situation and deliver them a response that best matches what they need.

A Case for Text Interviews

Companies often rely on hiring processes that don’t evaluate the skills a job requires. This disconnect is particularly damaging for customer support because phone interviews and panel presentations are a poor way to evaluate candidates whose expertise lies in the written word.

You can best evaluate candidates when the hiring environment matches the job; you need success in the interview and the role to require the same skills. This is why phone interviews for customer support roles are so confounding. Team members spend dozens of hours every week writing yet you form a first impression based on how they can present themselves through voice. That’s the mismatch that text-based interviews solve.

Among other things, text-based interviews teach you three things about a candidate.

  • Can they write high-quality responses quickly? Customer support requires writing clear answers in short amounts of time. While speed and clarity often feel in tension with one another, success happens when you balance each and achieve both. If a candidate keeps the interview flowing and still conveys depth it’s likely their customer interactions will be prompt and thorough. That’s the kind of team member you want to find.
  • Can they communicate ideas well under stress? Interviews are stressful, even when they push candidates on topics they know inside and out. But stress can often throw us off track and cause us to forget important, routine information. If a candidate can withstand the stress of an interview and still relate clear ideas it bodes well for how they’ll handle a frustrated or stressful customer. You want team members who can handle those customers with ease.
  • Can their writing convey a voice? Text-based conversations, especially when distributed, are a huge part of how teams form and bond. All those Slack chats may feel like an all-day meeting but they’re also important to how many teams share ideas, help one another, and build relationships. If a candidate’s answers carry personality then it’s likely they can more effectively integrate with and, as importantly, add to your team.

Each one of those is relevant to how someone performs the core responsibilities of a job in support. There’s more to it than just those traits, of course. But if you form a first impression based on those factors you are much closer to making a fair, informed hiring decision about how someone will perform in the job.

And, not to be overlooked, text interviews help you find candidates you could otherwise (subconsciously) bias yourself against and lose. In a text interview it doesn’t matter if a candidate’s not the most confident speaker, if they have an accent, or if they need 30 seconds to compose their thoughts. Any (or all!) of those things can be true and you, just like your customers on the other end of an email, won’t even notice.

Great customer support requires clear writing. How well your team writes is what defines the relationship between your company and its customers. Next time you hire a team member try a text-based interview. If you put candidates in a position most similar to the work itself then you can better evaluate how they’ll really do in the role.

Avoid the Apologies

Work in customer support for any stretch of time and you know customer disappointment is part of the job. The customer signed up with inflated expectations, wants a feature that isn’t built yet, or has needs that your product simply isn’t built to serve. Your team typically isn’t at fault in these scenarios. It’s the side effect of customers bringing their myriad hopes and dreams to a product that is never quite as expansive as their imagination. But even without being at fault we still feel an impulse to apologize.

Our quick apologies are often a proxy for what we really mean. When we rush to apologize we lose sight of what helps a customer feel heard. We can still impart a positive experience, even when we cannot resolve their request, but too often we leave out important context that helps a customer understand why we’re unable to help. Take these two brief examples:

I’m sorry, unfortunately there isn’t a way to do that in the product today.

I’ve heard that so often as a customer. It’s…fine. But it leaves me wondering, “Well, gosh, if you feel so bad why don’t you do something to fix it?” If we add just a little more context we create a world of difference in tone:

There isn’t a way to do that in the product today. I made a note so our team can revisit the idea since I can see how this would be useful. Thank you for taking the time to ask as finding these gaps helps us improve the product!

That’s better! While it stays general and doesn’t promise a resolution it does convey an appreciative tone instead of an apologetic one. Since no one made a mistake there’s no need to apologize, the product just can’t do a certain thing. That’s okay.

There a few guidelines that I use to avoid impulse apologies:

  • Stay matter of fact. It’s okay to convey the limitations of your product or service in a straightforward way that’s free from apologies.
  • Keep the tone appreciative. The urge to say sorry comes, in part, from a recognition that you may lose this customer. Be appreciative for what you learned about your business rather than apologetic about imperfections.
  • Find a constructive next step. This may be sharing feedback with your team or recommending a competitor that better matches the customer’s needs. In either case, focus on a sense of progress rather than one of regret.

Combine these and you convey confidence and competence to a customer, even when they’re disappointed. Sure, they might leave for a competitor. But that’s okay because they’re leaving with a positive, strong impression of your company. This may grant you a future opportunity to win their business.

I like to reserve apologies for when I or my team make a mistake that negatively impacts the customer; that way it’s sure to sound meaningful. When I feel that impulse to apologize I remind myself to take an extra moment and write what I really want to convey. Sometimes it helps to just ask myself: what is it I want this customer to understand? Once I write that out I’m often most of the way to a better response.

Great customer support is built upon kind and clear communication. An apology we make out of habit is neither. It’s through clear context that we leave even a disappointed customer with a positive impression of our work and our company.

Lessons from Mayo Clinic

I first read Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic after an advisor recommended it to me a few years ago. I was somewhat skeptical about learning from a massive healthcare institution, but Mayo Clinic is not just any healthcare system. The book describes what makes the institution unique and how it excels for its patients.

If you don’t already know the name, Mayo Clinic is a US-based hospital system founded all the way back in 1864 and remains renowned today. Many of its core values connect to the founder’s two sons, who ran the practice in the late 1800s. These brothers were serious about healthcare; one even spent his honeymoon touring hospitals and clinics.

The book has lots of great detail about Mayo’s operations. For the purposes of this post, though, I want to detail the clinic’s careful attention to how their facilities, staff, and behavior send patients clues about healthcare quality. Even small concerns can influence how patients—or customers—view an organization. Below I outline 3 types of clues the authors describe and offer some ideas for how you can apply these to your own customer service.

About Clues

When customers interact with an organization they take mental notes. As the authors write, “Customers act like ‘detectives’ in the way they process and organize experience clues into a set of impressions that evoke feelings.” They tune into all sorts of things and the more variable, complex, or personal the service you provide the more important these clues become.

The authors outline 3 types of clues: functional, mechanic, and humanic, which connect and have their greatest impact when they align with one another. While functional clues influence our rational perspective, it’s the mechanic and humanic clues that build our emotional perceptions.

Functional Clues

The primary role of a functional clue is to strengthen a customer’s confidence in the reliability of what you deliver. Another way to think of them is that they signal your competence. We can often get lost thinking that these are the only clues that matter; if the answer is correct, what else matters? The answer is a lot, because customers often aren’t adept at evaluating technical competency.

Here Mayo’s team-based approach to medicine is its greatest advantage. By coordinating resources they give patients a clear sense that they’re getting the best possible care. Patients aren’t bounced between 3 different doctors with contradictory recommendations. They’re given 3 doctors who work together to figure out the single best course of treatment.

Each support team requires similar teamwork; your training material and best practices all have a role to play. Your answers need to be consistent, thorough, and well-researched. Customers may turn to you as the expert, but help them trust that’s the case and followthrough with clear, relatable answers. There’s a lot of repetitive work in support, but great team performance comes from doing those routine things in an outstanding manner.((Hat tip to Ann Dunwoody for that sentiment. Read her excellent book, A Higher Standard.))

Mechanic Clues

These often define a customer’s first impression as they’re the sensory clues (physical, visual, auditory, etc.) that tell a customer what they can expect. What matters most is that their design both fits and supports the type of service an organization can (and will!) deliver. For Mayo Clinic, they know healthcare is stressful and work to create a reassuring first impression.

They place such an emphasis on mechanic clues that they travel to marble quarries to ensure stones have no natural patterns that would suggest disquieting human forms or disease. In their pediatric wing are 3 different heights of water fountains, rivers and animal tracks that guide children to exam rooms, and exam rooms that are free from 90-degree corners. Individually any of these things are relatively small, but collectively they make it clear Mayo pays careful thought to how children experience their clinic.

There are many analogues for mechanic clues within online customer support. Your contact form, email templates, documentation design, and more all send a customer certain signals. Do they fit together cohesively and imply a level of service you effectively deliver? Each element of your service can reinforce the values you want a customer to understand. But as Mayo shows, doing that well requires care, attention, and creativity.

Humanic Clues

Humanic clues range from dress to appearance, tone of voice, and more. While they’re subjective, they nonetheless have an emotional impact on people. And if you work within a labor-intensive or interactive service profession it’s these clues that are most important in exceeding customer expectations.

At Mayo Clinic this means that physicians wear business attire, nurses wear white uniforms, and the organization has clear standards for how staff act and communicate with patients. The structure is designed to put patients at ease and while some may find it rigid it’s all done with a purpose.

While we don’t all show up to an email conversation in business attire, there are lessons for us in this framework. It’s worth thinking about the clues your writing sends a customer. Things both large (style guide and tone) to small (email signatures and emoji usage) play a role in the customer’s experience and each is an opportunity to influence how they perceive your service. Think about what impact you want to have with customers and then how you can best convey those standards to team members.

Connection to Support

There’s clearly a ton that Mayo Clinic does right. And while we’re not all running massive healthcare institutions I do think there’s much we can learn from how they approach service. With that in mind, this was my favorite line from the book:

A service can be functional and still create negative feelings in customers because of how it is delivered.

That’s such a good reminder. Our responsibility in support doesn’t end at the technical accuracy of an answer as there are so many other pieces that we have to get right. But it’s often that technical accuracy that we spend the most time thinking about, training people in, and evaluating in CSAT scores and the like. Reading Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic is a reminder to step back and look at things holistically. To really understand each part of what builds into your customer experience.

As we start this new year, take a moment to go through each step of your customer experience. How does your contact form greet a customer? Does the confirmation email they get match the tone you strive for in replies? How does your team use greetings, email signatures, and more to create a consistent vibe? Just like the pattern in a slab of marble, these small details can be easy to overlook, but they’re clues that influence each customer’s experience.

2020 in Review

In 2018 and 2019 my annual recap focused on the books I read. Books still occupied a large space in 2020, but with so much change I wanted to widen the lens for a year-in-review.

The year’s biggest change was a sharp drop in travel due to the pandemic. Over the last 3 years, annual work and personal travel spanned 80+ days and 75k+ miles. In 2020 I stayed in Portland from late February on, which was a welcome change. It’s my longest work travel gap in a decade.

Morning light coming into Sagrada Família.
Sagrada Família, from a trip in January.

Prior to the pandemic, 2020 was on pace to be an even busier year and January and February meant trips to Barcelona, California, Washington D.C., and India. Staying closer to home left more time for local activity, with hikes on Mt. Hood and Kings Mountain, along with salmon fishing on the Columbia. It was also nice to have more time for cooking, from pot roast to cinnamon rolls and cake.

This lack of travel meant vast amounts of time for reading as I read 103 books across 2020, which is about twice my pace in 2018 or 2019. Most of those were print copies, a change from last year’s Kindle focus. Without needing the portability of a Kindle my long-standing preference for print won out (though shelf space is a concern at this rate).

In fiction I particularly appreciated rereading books, which brought a sense of the familiar back into a strange year. Of new novels I read, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future was my favorite, partly because it’s the first science fiction book I’ve read that directly deals with a near future driven by climate change. It was also fun to read Jane Austen’s work, in part for the reminder that people led rich lives in comparatively simpler and more geographically-constrained times.

Of the non-fiction I read, two books stood out. Chris Arnade’s Dignity is deeply compelling and uses a journalistic eye to bring moving stories of people to the forefront. If you add one book to your list I recommend Dignity. Bob Moesta’s Demand-Side Sales, which I shared notes from, is a clear handbook for how to keep the customer at the center of your company. I highly recommend it to anyone working in a for-profit business.

On this site I wrote more regularly about the craft of customer support and started a twice-monthly newsletter in late September. Posts go to both this blog and an email list, for which Buttondown provides just the right level of detail. I like the ability to add to my home on the open web and publish to a known group of readers. But it’s the act of writing and giving shape to ideas that I most enjoy.

2021 seems, more than most, like a year that will laugh at grand plans. My plans are simple: more reading, writing, and time close to home.

Plan Ahead and Speed Up Email

The gift and curse of email is its delay. It gives you space to solve a customer’s issue but extends a customer interaction across days or even weeks. It’s important that your replies help a customer move forward. And your very best replies help them resolve everything in just one or two responses.

I’ve found the best way to do this is to ask myself: what will happen if my suggestion doesn’t work? Even when I’m certain in my suggestion I consider what will happen if I’m wrong. I never want to put a customer in a position where all they can tell me is, “That didn’t work. Now what?” This puts us back at square one, introduces more delay, and leaves the customer waiting on me.

If you plan ahead and enlist the customer in your process you can avoid this situation. This can help you speed up the flow and prevent the customer from feeling stuck. There are two main approaches that help.

Think Conceptually

Part of your role in support is to teach a customer new concepts. These can range from how a feature works to the location of a browser’s address bar. When learning one new concept it’s only a short jump to learn other adjacent ideas.

For example, if you suspect a browser issue and direct a non-technical customer to clear their cache and cookies, consider if the console output or network details will also help. They’re already venturing into the great unknown of their browser settings so make sure you get the most of that. This helps you rule out their browser in one step so you don’t go through individual causes piece-by-piece. Here’s one example:

Thanks for those details about what isn’t working for you. A browser issue is the most likely cause in these situations; things can get stuck and lead to all sorts of odd behavior. There are a couple steps I’d like you to try that will help us rule this out.

1. Clear your cache and cookies and try reloading the page. We have a help article that explains how.

2. Check your browser console for errors. This one’s a little tricky, but we have instructions that show you each step.

If you see any errors in your browser console please copy those and let me know what they say.

This presumes that you have clear help articles for those two steps (if you don’t it’s a good reminder to add one!). The idea is to put the customer into an exploring mindset and combine similar requests. If neither option works, you ruled out both common causes in one reply, saving you and the customer time. And because you planned ahead and connected similar concepts it eased the customer’s experience, hopefully boosting their confidence in both you and themselves.

Think Sequentially

We all make heavy use of documentation in our support replies and often those help articles cover an involved series of steps. It’s a mistake to send that to a customer without first thinking about how they might struggle.

When you send someone to a multi-step support doc they can end up stuck or lost, which is why it’s important to guide them on what to do in that case. When you do this well you can get them back on track and avoid the dreaded, “That didn’t work.” response. As a brief example:

This is a great question; it’s one we hear often. We have instructions on what to do in our support site. There are 12 steps outlined, which I know is a lot, but each one has a screenshot to help walk you through what to do.

Can you try those steps and let me know how it goes? If you get stuck, no worries! Just let me know which step you’re stuck on and what you see at that point. It will help me figure out where things went off track so that we can get this all fixed up for you.

This kind of message increases the likelihood of a response like, “I got all the way to step 6 but when I got there what I saw didn’t match the instructions. Instead I saw…” By acknowledging that the customer may get stuck somewhere in the sequence you help them feel less lost as they always have your backup step. That step will still feel like progress. Plus, you will occasionally get an immediate pointer to where your documentation is out of date or less clear than you first assumed.

Final Touches

When you bring the customer into your process like this you create a smoother and more responsive experience. Gone is the one-step-at-a-time debugging that can lead a customer to feel like you’re guessing. In its place is a more considered approach that ties concepts together and moves in sequence.

The last thing you want is for this to feel like extra work, so be selective in what you ask of someone and only request the most relevant next steps. Don’t throw half a dozen things into one reply. Be deliberate and ask yourself what next piece of information you’ll need if this doesn’t work. Every customer’s time is valuable and the more you speed up email exchanges the better.

Finally, as I tried to show in those examples, remember to (briefly) explain why this information will help. It’s best to connect that to the customer’s own best interest, since customers will take an extra step if they trust it means a faster resolution. Email will never compare to live chat or a phone call for speed, but if you plan ahead you can significantly cut down on its inherent delay.

Customer-focused Sales

A few months ago a tweet from Jason Fried led me to Bob Moesta’s Demand-Side Sales. I figured that anything Jason would write a foreword to must be worthwhile and bought a copy right away. I’m glad I did as the book is a quick, 200-page read packed full of clear, cogent advice on sales.

The book focuses on a customer-centric idea of sales. This isn’t a book about high-pressure tactics that try to amp up the appeal of certain features or gadgets. Instead, you find practical advice for understanding customer behavior. It’s a clear, customer-first philosophy of sales that anyone working in customer support can learn from to improve their own craft. This makes the book a good reminder about practices you can fold into your day-to-day support work.

The Philosophy

Bob Moesta’s philosophy of demand-side sales boils down to putting the customer at the center of things; gone is a focus on what the company can deliver and in its place is the progress a customer desires. If you’re familiar with the Jobs To Be Done framework this understandably sounds similar as Bob was a contributor to JTBD research.

This view also removes what can often feel abrasive about sales. Instead of trying to push your product on to someone, you start by trying to understand what’s important to them and whether your product can help (it might not be able to!). Bob’s definition of great salespeople could also be said about customer support experts:

People need someone to help them navigate their way to make progress. The salesperson’s job is to help customers figure out what the options are by first understanding what’s important to them.

Bob recommends interviewing your existing customers to find out what’s important to them. The goal is to understand the people who have already made progress with your product since it’s only by doing this that you can find the patterns that’ll help others succeed. If you’re keen to start this practice within your own team the book’s full of practical advice, sample interview questions, and example case studies that give you a great starting point.

Demand-Side Sales Framework

The starting point for any sales process is what Bob calls the struggling moment. It’s this moment when you realize that the status quo isn’t working, so you look around for something that you can buy to overcome the struggle. If you’re not sleeping as well as you used to, suddenly you pay more attention to that mattress store you drive past each day.

Bob also introduces a framework that I found particularly valuable for thinking about sales. The book details 4 forces that influence someone’s progress:

  • The push of the situation (i.e. how bad is it?).
  • The magnetism of the new solution (i.e. how much better is it?).
  • The anxiety of the new solution (i.e. how unknown is it?).
  • The habit of the present (i.e. how much has to change?).

What stuck with me here was the acknowledgement that two of those forces pull someone toward purchasing a product and two push someone away from doing so. From a support perspective that means I want to think about how to amplify the first two points and how to assuage the third and fourth concern. In those first two there’s excitement I can tap into, in the second two is worry I can help someone get past.

How It Works

This all can sound great in theory, but it’s the real-world examples that drive the book’s advice home. The most memorable examples come from Bob and his co-author Greg’s time building homes for retired, over-55 people in the Detroit area. Their competitor in the area tried to motivate home buyers through traditional tactics like free granite countertops or multi-thousand dollar discounts. As you might guess the authors did not take that approach.

Instead, they learned a major barrier to moving was figuring out what to do with sentimental family belongings. They raised the price of the homes, built a storage center across the street, included moving services as part of the package, and added a clubhouse room connected to the storage facility. That boosted sales by over 20% and gave families a way to store their belongings and sort through them on their own terms.

The three case studies in the book also include great examples from banking, healthcare, and consumer electronics. They also present those case studies in a way that helps you understand how to make use of their interview-based approach.

What This Means for Support

Part of why I find this model of sales so compelling is the central role it gives existing customers. Customer support teams talk with existing customers every day! Demand-Side Sales is a reminder to practice a few behaviors.

  • Don’t be shy about selling your product, just focus on what the customer wants to achieve. Remember that they’re struggling with something and trying to make progress. You can focus on this, help them reach their goal, and forget any pressure you may feel to push your product onto them.
  • Don’t get stuck in rabbit holes about a particular feature. This is particularly true if the customer themselves is also stuck! Instead take a step back and make sure you understand what the customer wants to achieve, then help them work toward that in the best way possible.
  • Don’t settle for surface-level details; ask specific, inquisitive questions. The more context you can gather the better working model you can form for what someone is struggling with and what progress looks like to them.

Finally, Demand-Side Sales is a good reminder to get outside your comfort zone. It’s an approachable, customer-focused way of doing sales that taps into some of the same motivations that bring us to customer support. If you’re someone who’s skeptical of salespeople or feels that great customer support is at odds with effective sales practices, I’d encourage you to pick up a copy and approach the book with an open mind. Great customer support, like great sales, helps a customer achieve their goals.

Expectations of Ease

When we set expectations we create a framework for how people experience our product. If we set different expectations, the same result can lead to a meaningfully different overall experience. The experience of using our product is as much about how it feels as it is about the end result.

We set a high bar for our product to live up to when we call something easy to use. That frustration you feel when assembling a why-is-it-this-&%$#@-hard piece of IKEA furniture is real. And part of it stems from the very fact that you bought the IKEA version because you expected it to be quick and easy.

Setting an expectation of ease often feels like a good idea as we rush to reassure a customer and try to provide lost confidence. Instead, we set someone up with a dangerous expectation: that new feature is easy to use, the task is quick to complete, the workflow simple to figure out.

What’s really behind an expectation like this is a baked in set of assumptions about how people use our product. We assume that someone can devote their full attention to the task, that they’re not unduly pressured or stressed, or that they’re comfortable embracing a level of uncertainty while they figure out a new or challenging product.

Attention, stress, and uncertainty. All things that have changed in this year of strange years. It’s a good reminder to re-evaluate our approach. No matter your product, your customers today likely aren’t at their best.

So what can you do? First, be cautious about setting any expectations of ease. Instead just focus on the fact that something can be done, you don’t have to qualify it as easy, quick, or simple. Second, ensure the customer knows it’s okay if they don’t get it. You want to keep them connected to you so you can learn when they’re stuck and lend a hand. Finally, review all those text snippets you rely on. You may be inadvertently sending things out of habit rather than out of their relevance for the person you’re helping today.

There is a fine line here as we shouldn’t discourage people. The right approach isn’t to under promise by setting a mundane task up to be a labor of Hercules; nobody is that much of a hero. We just need to help people feel confident and in control. We need to listen to where people are today and help them move forward, even if that isn’t easy.

A Complaint Is a Gift

Dealing with complaints can be drudgery, and complaining customers can be angry, stressed, and harsh. The emails, live chats, and phone calls to resolve these complaints often aren’t much fun. They can push us to our most defensive, when we inadvertently make the situation worse.

For all of those reasons I find Janelle Barlow and Claus Møller’s A Complaint Is a Gift to be a go-to resource. The book, first published in the mid-1990s with an updated second edition from 2008, remains a solid handbook for handling complaints with grace and ease.

Within their philosophy of complaints are a few important takeaways:

  • Elegantly handling complaints is possible.
  • People only complain because they hope something will happen.
  • Only a small percentage of people take the time to complain.
  • Each complaint is an opportunity to learn and improve your service.

That last point is central: each complaint is a gift someone gives you. The customer could have just stayed silent and left your company behind. But they spoke up and presented an opportunity to restore their trust, partner with them to fix the problem, and improve your process for next time.

Below I outline three principles that let you make the most of this opportunity. They’re straightforward on the surface, but I’ve found each helpful to revisit and practice. I’m just summarizing, though, and all credit goes to the authors.

Be personal

The first step is to be personal and rebuild trust, and the best way to open is to thank the customer (remember, they brought you a gift). If you’re apologizing, make it genuine and say “I” instead of “we.” Apologize for what happened, not for the inconvenience. And don’t blame the customer (that’s just pouring fuel on the fire), but do offer complete explanations, ask lots of questions, and reassure them you’re invested in fixing the problem. No matter the medium, you want the customer to understand you’re personally working to understand their complaint. You’re not just going through a form or script.

As consultants the authors travel quite often and they share an example from United Airlines that drives this home. After a cascading series of problems with luggage, a United VP proactively followed up, set the script aside, and was sincere. As they relate:

Finally, Janelle wrote a letter. She got a telephone call and a letter in quick order. Then it happened again; no luggage. When Janelle arrived at the TMI office the next morning, a caller was holding for her. The voice at the other end of the line said, “We did it again, didn’t we?” Perfect. A vice president from United was calling and obviously had been alerted to the delayed-luggage report that was filed the previous night. Again, we say that so much of effective complaint handling is in the way it is done.

Make it a partnership

Don’t try to fix your customers’ problems too quickly. Give them a chance to express the emotions they feel.

Complaints often come alongside anger and frustration. To resolve them it’s important to not rush into anything as that won’t help your customer feel heard (it’s also how you can make mistakes). Instead, work to build a partnership with the customer. If things remain adversarial they’ll stay angry, and you’ll be limited in how you can help.

One of the best ways to build a partnership is to detach yourself from the situation. You want to remain invested in fixing the problem while keeping your emotional responses out of the equation; this balance helps you work with the customer. The authors outline 5 behavioral approaches and phrasing models that can help:

  • Investigatory: “Let’s get to the bottom of this.”
  • Advisory: “We can approach this a couple ways.”
  • Listening: “Tell me what happened, I’d like to know as well.”
  • Analytical: “Let’s go through things in order.”
  • Reassuring: “Did I understand all of that correctly?”

The entire “When Customers Go Ballistic” chapter is an excellent set of action-oriented suggestions. There are phrasing suggestions like those above throughout. Two more of my favorites:

  • Instead of “Sir, I can’t help you if you don’t…” try, “Could you help me understand more about what happened…”
  • Instead of, “No, we can’t get that for you today.” try, “We can get it for you, and it shouldn’t take any more than three days.”

Focus on process, not people

Service recovery has two aspects: emotional and tangible. The emotional aspect is helping everyone feel better about the situation that created dissatisfaction. The tangible aspect is doing something to fix the situation.

Once you’ve diffused the emotional aspect of the complaint you can begin to work on the tangible side of things. Here it’s important to consider two levels of fixing the situation: How can we fix it for this customer? And how can we fix it so that this doesn’t happen again?

You want the individual customer to have their complaint resolved and you want to prevent other customers running into the same situation. The goal is not to get really good at handling complaints you could have prevented! That’s why you need to learn what first led to this problem. The cause is very likely to be on the process side and they use a phrase borrowed from an early 1990s medical paper, “Punish process, not people.” With this mindset the more complaints you hear the better.

I hope this gives you a good idea of what you can learn from A Complaint Is a Gift. There’s something in the book for every level of an organization, from a brand new customer support team member on up to the senior leadership team. Its straightforward principles are ones that I’ve found regularly worth revisiting.

Bug Expectations

When someone runs into a bug our natural inclination is to help them feel optimistic. We likely can’t personally fix the problem and we want to reassure them that their issue is important and will be fixed. This might create short-term happiness but it risks long-term frustration and disappointment.

It’s a lesson that’s often learned the hard way. You tell a customer that something will be fixed only for it to linger in the bug tracker and, 6 months later, cause that customer to be furious with you. It happens to all of us. I sent far too many replies like this early in my career:

Unfortunately this is due to a bug on our side. Don’t worry, though, I reported it to our development team and we’ll get it fixed soon. I’ll let you know when that happens and thanks for your patience!

So optimistic! But there are three problems in that type of response: it promises a solution, it suggests a timeline, and it fails to provide a workaround.

We just created a cascading series of problems for our future selves. We didn’t provide a workaround so the person we helped is now stuck and likely to ask for an update next week. We promised that we would fix the issue and put our development team on the hook for an expectation they had no hand in creating (and are likely unaware of). And we set a timeline and created a ticking clock in our customer’s mind.

Plus, if we don’t deliver we let the customer down twice: we have buggy software and we can’t follow through on our commitments. Let’s avoid that! Instead, it’s best to set less concrete expectations and follow three guidelines.

Figure out if there’s a workaround

The best bugs are those we can avoid by working around them. They still need fixing but avoidable bugs are simply less annoying (for both us and those we help). To find the right workaround, ask the person about their ultimate goal. If you listen closely to their goal (rather than the exact steps they want to take) you can often find an inconvenient-but-feasible solution. It may not be what they hoped for, but it gives them a way to move forward.

This also lightens our self-imposed pressure. Avoiding the bug is already a positive result! You can close the conversation with something like, “We’ll look into what’s happening here and I’m glad we got another option set up for you.”

Decide if you’ll keep the customer updated

Bugs that people experience every day merit periodic updates. Those customers, even if they memorize a workaround, will have a daily reminder of your product’s flaws. But that’s not every bug, and you certainly don’t have to keep every customer updated about every bug. A good question to ask yourself is whether this bug exists in an infrequent product flow or in a pattern of regular usage. Infrequent bugs mean there’s less value in ongoing updates, especially if you already helped them avoid the bug with a clear workaround. For those customers the bug may just be a one-time occurrence.

It’s best to have a consistent approach across the team so that customers get a similar experience once they run into a bug. One way to create that team-level consistency: audit the last 100 bug tickets you resolved, measure how long it took between initial report and resolution, and measure how many total replies your team sent out with status updates. If it’s taking months to resolve the typical bug those followup replies are likely wasting time for both your team and customers. Calibrate your approach to your customers and your product as the right answer depends on context.

Promise information, not solutions nor timelines

This can push against every tendency you have. The problem is that software development is a complex process in which even seemingly “simple” bugs can stump a team or sit in a backlog.

The only situation in which I feel comfortable providing a timeline is when the bug is already fixed and that release is already planned. In other scenarios there’s just too much that can go wrong.

The best approach is to set simple expectations. It’s better to promise future updates instead of specific next steps. As one example, you can write, “We don’t have a timeline right now but if that changes I’ll let you know.” and avoid writing, “I’ll let you know once our team has [investigated, fixed, or looked into] this bug.” People may be disappointed, but you’re at least not giving them false or risky hope.

One caveat: the above advice applies best if your product serves individuals. If the bug impacts a 6-figure enterprise account then you very likely must solve the bug and keep them updated. But work as a team and match expectations to what your development team can deliver.

People ultimately respond best to honesty. When they run into a bug in your product they’ll often feel fixing it should be your top priority. But we know that’s not always the case. It’s better to help them feel heard without setting them up for future disappointment.