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3 Customer Service Experts Share Stories of Turning Bad Support Interactions Around

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Not every customer interaction starts well, but you have the power to turn them around. Here’s how.

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In customer support, interactions that start off on an unpleasant foot aren’t uncommon.

And it makes sense, of course: customers can be unhappy for all sorts of reasons, from issues with your product or service, to simply having a bad day.

Either way, it’s our job to ensure that we do whatever we can to turn these interactions around; as we’ve all experienced, often a bad experience with great customer service recovery leads to a more loyal customer than no bad experience at all.

I asked three support experts for their best insights on turning bad customer experiences around.

Each of the stories below can teach us different lessons about how to get better at dealing with difficult customer interactions.

What 16 Years in CS Has Taught Bill Thompson About Service Recovery

Bill Thompson is the Guru of Customer Happiness at Olark, a live chat software company.

To say Bill has experience with customer service recovery would be a bit of an understatement…

In my sixteen years of doing CS and building online community from web 1.0 for Winmap/SHOUTcast right up to my current four years at Olark, I've had the opportunity to talk many upset customers down off the ledge and back into being bonded, evangelistic users. It's kinda my thing.

It's not so hard to do. Rule one, stay calm, focused and really listen to what the upset person is saying. Oft times when a person is angry, they will not be at their, er, most articulate and emotions can eclipse their normally calm and rational demeanor (translation: they are seeing red, yelling and not hearing you).

So it's imperative that you remain calm, and LISTEN. I capitalized not because I'm yelling, but because it's the prime directive. What people need most when they are upset is to know that they are being listened to, that you are a resource, a life preserver and a path to a solution.

So ask questions, clarify and really flesh out what their needs are.

In doing so you can directly address those needs and with luck end up with a more calm, more happy customer. That really is the key as once they know you're listening and will help/advocate for them, I guarantee they will calm down, con pronto.

When asked to share a specific example of service recovery, Bill notes that he has hundreds.

Everywhere I've worked I've always been the go­to guy to talk with angry customers.

Probably the roughest day in CS I've ever had was my first week as Webmaster for a local high end pet food/supplies retailer here in San Francisco. A company we bought really expensive dog food from ($40+ for an 18 lbs bag) got a bad batch from their supplier and dogs were getting poisoned and getting extremely sick.

The one phone line that came in and the one email address, all led to me, I had a horrific week or two of listening to very distraught and angry people. It took every ounce of patience and empathy and just being a reassuring shoulder to lean on to get through.

The key was not just blurting out a corporate PR response as a defense, but letting them tell their story and vent, before offering the help we were giving. I learned a ton from that week about people and about giving quality help in a difficult moment.

Takeaway: Most customers aren’t looking for an excuse or a defense; many simply want you to listen. If you can do that well, you’ll set yourself apart from the overwhelming majority of businesses.

How Micah Bennett Ensured That a Non-Converting User Left on Good Terms

Micah Bennett is the Support Lead at Zapier, one of my favorite tools for integrating web apps without having to write any code.

With hundreds of thousands of people using the hundreds of apps on its platform, Zapier has a lot of support to do.

In one case, Micah faced a customer who wasn’t able to get what he wanted from the product.

At Zapier we often run into cases where our integrations don't quite have the exact nuance or level of detail individuals need, and that can cause them to be frustrated. In this specific case, a user was particularly miffed why a particular bit of information wasn't available, and deemed our product “useless” without it.

While the product wasn’t a great fit for this user, Micah was still able to turn the situation around and end on much happier terms with two important steps.

First, we acknowledged how useful it would be to have that information they needed. While we couldn't help them, it was absolutely a valid need on their part, and hearing that from us helped to put them at ease that we were on their side and not there to argue with them. Second, we were able to give some more detail on why exactly we couldn't deliver on that specific need. Upon hearing the details, the user was able to better relate to our product, which like any other project has things we want to include but can't for lack of time or other circumstance.

Those two steps in concert helped to leave the user much happier than they were at the outset, even though we weren't able to meet their specific needs.

Takeaway: Even if you can’t help a customer, empathy can go a long way in ensuring that you part ways on happy terms.

How Kyle Racki Turned a “Bad” Customer Around

Kyle Racki is the CEO of Proposify, a proposal software tool that helps agencies and freelancers design better proposals.

Proposify had a customer who was being rude to Kyle and his team, and actually ended up using our word-for-word script for firing a customer on him.

In this case, though, the script backfired in perhaps the best possible way…

We have a customer who regularly sends in complaints and is actually quite rude about it. He’ll end sentences with stuff like “Pathetic.” or “Not impressed.” Some complaints are legit, others are just impossible to fulfill, like have 24/7 phone support.

The funny thing is, he would pepper his harsh criticism with stuff like like “love the product” and he wasn’t abusive, like calling us names or cursing at us. But eventually the complaints just got to be too much, he threatened to cancel if his demands weren’t met, and I thought, “let’s get rid of him.”

I looked up your post on how to fire a client and used it word-for-word to try and make him cancel the account.


His response…


Funny thing is, we rarely get complaints from him now… and he’s still a customer using the product.

Sometimes when you take something away from someone, they want it more. Rewarding bad behaviour naturally encourages it, but when you say you’ve had enough and they should use another product, you might end up learning that they actually love your product, want to use it and offer you more constructive feedback.

Takeaway: You can choose which customers you keep. Always strive to deliver excellent support, but be firm when you truly don’t think you can help a customer succeed. You might be surprised by how quickly this turns things around.

Your Turn: Got Any Great Turnaround Stories?

Each of these three stories shines a spotlight on a different critical element of great support.

Listening to your customer, demonstrating empathy and standing your ground can all help you build better relationships with your customers.

Have you had any support interactions that started off on a bad foot, but turned into positive experiences for you and your customer?

Let me know in the comments below.

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About the Author

Len Markidan heads up marketing at Groove. He’s focused on helping startups and small businesses build better relationships with their customers.

Read his latest posts or follow him on Twitter

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