Tag: support

Worthwhile Documentation

Detailed support docs are not enough. If they were, our queues would be emptier. A good doc builds a customer’s confidence and helps them find clear, approachable answers. They won’t find that, though, if we don’t make documentation seem worthwhile.

Any customer who contacts support is motivated to solve their problem, but that doesn’t mean a simple link will be enough to draw their attention. A support doc still has to sound compelling. And yet too often our replies tack on a link to documentation as an afterthought.

To make a doc sound worthwhile, focus on the words right before a link. I know I’ve sent many a reply like, “You can read more about this here…” with a link. That sounds superficial and ignores important context and direction. My job is to give the customer a look at what’s inside the doc and how it can help them—but a minimal reply like that does neither.

It helps to think about what the doc contains that I couldn’t just copy and paste into an email response. Here’s an example that makes it sound more worthwhile:

There’s a lot more you can do with this feature and our support doc covers all the details. That link takes you through everything and includes screenshots to help you find each step and get it set up exactly how you want.

That reply is longer, but it puts more energy behind the link. The customer gets a thorough nudge and greater confidence this is information they need to know. They can see documentation as more than just a dry manual and have a hint that it will help them be more effective. Manuals are off-putting while a good support doc helps someone learn and build confidence.

It’s extra special if you can include tidbits into some docs. If a feature’s key to the product, document a couple (brief) case studies or next-level steps. With those included you can add something like,

And check out the bottom of the page for tips from some of our largest customers about how they use this feature. There’s good advice in there that can help you avoid common mistakes.

This takes a support doc from simple help material to something more like educational marketing. It shows a customer not just how to configure a feature but how to thrive. That may save you another email from the customer later on once they’ve mastered the basics.

There’s, of course, much more that can be done with documentation. To overhaul a set of support docs can be a mountain of work that takes weeks or months while improving our own replies is work we can start today. There’s no development time required nor any software to integrate. It’s something each team member can tinker with and learn. Customers are willing to spend more time with docs once they know it’ll be worth their while.

Not Everyone Contacts You

Only some customers ask for help. Many love the product, find it intuitive, and go about their merry way while others are so lost they give up and never bother to get in touch. No matter how busy the ticket queue gets, it doesn’t represent all customers.

This makes any support-driven definition of customer sentiment only one (important!) piece of a larger puzzle. Without a reference point it’s difficult to make meaningful.

If you lead a team, you want them to understand their work in context. The most important thing from support’s perspective may be minor in the overall customer experience. Alternately, what can feel like a flood in the queue may indicate a deep fault line that needs repair. The key is to provide balance, and there are three steps you can take.

Track the percentage of customers who contact support

The size of a queue or a given week’s volume isn’t inherently useful. A backed up queue could be the sign of a growing business. Hundreds of complaints could be a tiny portion of customers. It helps to compare support interactions with the wider customer base. This provides a reference point for understanding the nuance of support load.

To start, track the percentage of new customers who contact support 1, 7, 14, 21, and 28 days after signing up. A multi-stage timeline indicates how often new customers have immediate questions and how those build over time.

As one example, maybe 10% of customers contact support but 90% of those contacts come within the first 24 hours of signing up. That’s a good indicator you need better onboarding and new user help. Alternately, perhaps only 3% of customers contact support but the company has a real issue with churn. That suggests a need to connect with more customers and, at the very least, figure out what’s lacking about the product.

As a nice side effect, this can act as a planning framework. Not only will you understand the current balance of customers who need help, but you’ll be better able to plan for future changes in the business. This kind of data shows roughly how many new customers lead to how many new support interactions, which helps you anticipate hiring needs and more.

Invite the product team to highlight all that new features can do

Support teams can focus on bugs and lose sight of what’s improved. After all, the queue is not usually full of customers who just want to say they liked a change. Over time this focus on all that’s broken can drain morale.

It helps to give product leadership a space to showcase the positives, especially when that comes prior to launch. A town hall or demo session creates a balanced relationship and focuses the team’s energy on progress rather than problems. It’s also an opportunity to ask questions ahead of time, which prepares the team to support things post-launch. Shortly after any launch you want to remember what’s improved, and without a reference point back to the product’s wider progress it’s easy to get stuck thinking nothing ever changes.

Celebrate what customers accomplish

Some customers who need help nonetheless make stellar use of a product. Often that success comes after they contact support, which makes it hard to see the connection between their support interactions and later accomplishments. But it’s that connection which reaffirms the value of each interaction; any one email may be the key that helps a customer reach their goal.

When possible, highlight these customers for the support team and wider company and focus on what each achieved through the product. What’s valuable is less about how they used certain features and more about the overall aims they accomplished. These are a good reminder of why the support team’s help matters and the type of impact it has on people. Even when a queue is full, good things arise through solving those problems.

A reminder

At any point, some portion of customers will need help as a result of poor design, engineering bugs, or marketing confusion. The ability to resolve those questions with grace is both the job description and job security of a great support team.

It’s all too easy for a team to overly focus on those problems and lose sight of accomplishments. It helps to add perspective, showcase the positives, and find the success stories. These strategies restore balance to the daily work of support which makes the work sustainable. That balance is a reminder that there’s more to how customers use the product than just what comes into the queue.

Stormy Feature Rollouts

Ever change a design or launch a new feature that your customers just hated? It’s not fun! It pushes you back on your heels and makes you rush to justify the decision. Customer after customer complains about the same thing and in response you churn out rote explanations of how they can adapt and why the new way is better.

The problem is that those formulaic replies prevent your team from learning more about where customers struggle. It’s better to restrain your desire to explain the new feature or change in design and instead keep a curious mindset. Use that curiosity to ask about how the customer used to work and what they now find difficult. Lean on cues they mentioned in their message (or rant!). As one brief example:

I realize the editor’s new line spacing is frustrating for poets like yourself. Could you tell me more about how you used the old editor? I’d love to better understand your writing process as it may help our team reconsider how this works.

Your phrasing needs to give the customer an opening to talk about their positive experiences in times past. Not everyone will take that opening, of course, but it helps to make them feel heard right away. Echo their language back to them. Show that you’re listening and curious. And then ask open-ended, inquisitive questions that get them to share more about how they used the product in the past.

The goal is to not get bogged down in their frustration with the new design. You can always detail what their options are once you better understand how they expect things to work. You want to encourage a conversation about why this change made things difficult. You want to learn not just what the customer dislikes about the new version but what they loved about the old version. This will help you relay customer feedback back to your product team because the best products are those people love to use, not those they don’t hate.

As with so many things, this is easier said than done. And, yes, some customers are just going to vent. That’s okay. That’s where those formulaic responses can lend a hand, especially if you are swamped under a growing backlog. It’s still worth the effort to find those handful of customers who give you an opening. When you find them, it’s worth investing in some individualized conversations to understand your customers’ point of view.

As you talk with more customers, you build a model of how this particular change impacted them. That understanding is crucial for your product team. Knowing that many customers are unhappy isn’t actionable. Knowing that many customers are struggling to adapt because this new design complicates a common workflow is actionable, insightful gold. That’s fertile ground for the next design iteration.

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.

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.