Should I Let My Staff Complain About Customers?
Illustration by Sonny Ross

Humans are hardwired to harp on the bad stuff. In fact, the average employee vents or hears others venting four times a day.

We focus on negativity because it affects us more — and for longer — than positive experiences. Harvard Business School professor Teresa M. Amabile found that a setback at work can have twice the negative impact on our happiness as positive progress. That same setback on the job also has three times the power to increase frustration than the power of progress to decrease frustration.

A predisposition to focus on the negative means people voice the tough stuff more, too. Venting can feel like a release of painful emotions, which momentarily tips the scales back toward neutral. Complaining to someone who will validate our venting feels even better because it gives us a sense of connection and camaraderie that replaces the discomfort for a moment.

If you can grasp the power of negativity bias, it’s easy to understand why we complain about the tough stuff. That’s also why it’s so important to create a work culture that leaves the space for feedback while offsetting our natural tendency to give greater weight to the tough things.

Is complaining ever the right approach?

As natural as complaining can feel, experts are divided about whether it can ever be a positive choice in response to a negative experience. Some experts believe that there’s inherent value in the emotional release of venting about a bad experience, regardless of the intention. Some believe there is no value in airing grievances or gripes because “letting off steam” amplifies the issue people purportedly want to change or defuse.

There’s a third group of experts who believe that intention is everything. They distinguish between two kinds of complaining: complaining for the sake of venting, or complaining to affect change. Constructive complaining, some think, serves a purpose.

People with higher self-esteem tend to complain more, possibly because they believe in the power of their feedback to create positive change. Complaining with the hope of creating a different outcome (versus complaining to complain) is also tied to greater happiness in the complainer. In that sense, the intent behind each complaint can be the greatest indicator of whether or not it will be helpful in creating change moving forward, personally and professionally.

How do I manage venting on my team?

If employees don’t benefit from managers who listen to valid complaints about their customers, there’s no way for teams to know that their suggestions can make a difference. Instead, these complaints are pulled up into a broken exhaust fan — levels of leadership that don’t consider their input — which creates apathy or frustration. The first thing managers can do about venting is create an empathy-driven culture and strong support system.

1. Prioritize empathy and coachability in hiring and training

Throughout the hiring process, intentionally select team members for their empathy and coachability, as well as for their alignment with the organization’s values. When you empower these new hires with hands-on product training, they’re a lot less likely to complain about customers.

Takeaway: If you find that your new employees complain a lot, it may be because they haven’t received the support they need to feel empowered at work.

2. Create a strong network of support for support

Trust is the invisible framework that underpins a meaningful workplace. If your team members trust their managers and have access to HR people who put their needs first, they can still feel supported — even on the hardest days.

At Help Scout, team members have a Pops Pal (People Ops Pal) in addition to their manager. Support folks can ask for help whenever they need it, so everyone benefits from a listening ear. You can’t ask your team to be empathetic to customers if managers and HR are not modeling that behavior every day.

Takeaway: Unreceptive management can lead to toxic venting because employees have no safe source of support.

3. Address the big-picture takeaways from any complaint

Every time someone brings up a complaint, consider whether there are implications that extend beyond this specific person’s situation. In support, people are often asked to go above their pay grade without the help they need to thrive.

Did the complainer experience abuse or harassment of any kind? There should be a clear roadmap for escalating volatile interactions to managers before they become toxic. Are support professionals frustrated because their performance isn’t being measured fairly? Misaligned metrics (for example, prioritizing the number of conversations over the quality of responses) can cause endless frustration.

Takeaway: Digging into systemic causes behind complaints is important, especially when your organization is going through rapid change or transition.

4. Empower customer support within an organization

Create a clear process for escalating feedback beyond managers to company leaders. Help Scout’s team members can write a three-page document that describes a solution for something that bothers them at work, whether it’s a tiny issue or an organization-wide challenge. That kind of empowerment funnels bad experiences into good ideas.

Takeaway: Complaints from customer support are valuable intel for leaders; leaving them out of the conversation creates a dysfunctional work environment.

5. Create clear guidelines around company values and communication standards

If you haven’t already, create guidelines that clarify communication standards and boundaries. By educating your team members about company values and best practices, you set clear expectations for every team.

Help Scout has developed both a code of conduct and a communication guide that serve as a larger umbrella for conversations about complaints. Integrating these standards into everyday work is a daily practice — the opposite of a set-it-and-forget-it mentality. A living document creates alignment in an industry where there are often unspoken and inconsistent standards.

Takeaway: Documenting expectations and best practices ensures that everyone understands how company values translate to communication.

How to identify toxic complaining

Sometimes, no matter the best efforts of a manager to empathize with customer complaints and escalate important feedback, venting becomes toxic. The way people speak about customers sits within the greater dynamic of how people treat each other at work. Unfortunately, speaking badly about customers can also degrade communication, turning into office gossip or a trash-talking competition.

Deriding anyone with language is a slippery slope. If you’re worried about whether complaining has gotten out of hand, consider the following questions:

  • Is this team member saying something they wouldn’t say to a person’s face?

  • Are they making assumptions about a customer’s intent and character rather than sticking to the facts and their feelings?

  • Are they name-calling?

  • Are complaints focused on ongoing issues with no clear beginning or end?

  • Is venting stuck in the past — for example, about something that happened six months ago?

  • Has venting become more frequent?

The more you answer “yes,” the more likely that venting is something you want to address with an individual or a team. You’ll also want to pay attention to the tone of the complaints, too. Consider the following examples:

  • “I feel really defeated because my queue has been so full today.” vs. “Everyone is being terrible today.”

  • “That customer is saying things that are not okay. That person was rude and hurtful; how they treated me was inappropriate.” vs. “Ugh! I hate this. I can’t believe that guy would be such a jerk — people are so mean.”

There’s a clear difference in the language and tone of these conversations. One phrase is giving voice to personal feelings, while the other phrase is projecting intent onto customers and making generalizations.

What to do about someone complaining inappropriately

Addressing toxic complaining head-on is much easier to do if you benefit from a communication guide and company values that you can reference. Either way, there are some insights that can help lead you in the right direction. Becca Van Nederynen, Help Scout’s Head of People Ops, suggests a way to start the conversation: “I’ve heard from a number of people that you’re really down about X, Y, and Z. This is something we really need to address because the way you’re behaving because of this issue is not aligned with our culture and team values. What are some ways we can fix that?”

From there, look for clues that indicate what’s going on below the surface. Collaboratively, you can outline some fixes together and find ways to build accountability around change. Depending on their ability to match these new expectations, you’ll know whether it’s a resolvable issue or a poor fit that’s unlikely to evolve, no matter how much effort you put into it.

Be transparent about the consequences of complaining in a way that falls short of the communication standards and the company culture.You can also state the obvious: Working in support requires a specific skill set and work environment — and it’s not right for everyone. In this case, Alison Green shares helpful language for approaching the situation in Inc.: "I'm concerned by how frustrated this is making you. Knowing that it's not likely to change, what makes sense for you in the situation?" She suggests that you can add, "Can you stay and be reasonably happy, knowing that this is part of the package?"

Loop in HR throughout this entire process to ensure you’re offering your direct reports opportunities to shift behavior while escalating the consequences when and if changes don’t happen.

7 foundational tips for building a thriving customer support team and department from scratch.

How should I handle when someone I manage complains directly to me?

As easy as it is to focus on the person complaining, there are (at least) two people involved in every complaint. Although it seems counterintuitive, one of the biggest indicators of positive venting is the response of the listener, even if you’re just a colleague. There are some clear steps to follow that can help transform or defuse a complainer’s negative feelings.

1. Practice active listening by holding the space for complaints

Business psychiatrist Mark Goulston believes that listening to venting should start with receptivity and staying open, both in your posture and your voice. If someone approaches you about a tough issue, make eye contact and give the speaker your complete attention.

If you ever feel unsafe in any situation, the best course of action is to end the conversation immediately. There’s no reason you should ever feel threatened in a work context — or any context — and the best course of action will always be to report that behavior to People Ops or HR.

Even if you feel safe, you can always maintain clear boundaries and step away. Don’t reinforce the person’s negative perspective if it doesn’t match communication standards or values — even if it feels like the shortest way to wrap it up. Instead, follow Green’s guidance and say something like, “I empathize, but I have to step away and get back to work.”

2. Ask key questions to dive deeper into the issue

If you do want to continue the conversation, Goulston shares three questions that will help you dive deeper into the complainer’s feelings about a customer: What are you most frustrated about? What are you most angry about? What are you most worried about?

After you ask each question, dig a bit deeper. Offer the response, “Say more about….” Active inquiry can get to the heart of the matter, giving a complainer their due without getting lost in superfluous details. Throughout the conversation, stay neutral. It’s rarely helpful to chime in with your own experience, as that can conflate different issues and take the attention away from the person who needs support.

3. Offer to share potential changes or adjustments that the individual can make

When someone has given voice to their frustrations and complaints, it’s helpful to check in about their intention in venting. Becca recommends listeners offer this language: “Do you want me to help you problem-solve this or do you just need to vent?” or “Can I help talk you through how you want to handle this?”

Goulston uses similar language: “Now I understand why you are so frustrated, angry and worried. Since we can’t turn back time, let’s put our heads together to check out your options from here.” From there, you can talk through potential action steps. Ideally, you spend as much time focused on a solution as the complainer spent venting.

If you’re a colleague, it may be worth suggesting that a team member speak to their manager for recommendations on how to move forward. That way, the speaker can redirect their feelings to the person who is trained to support them. Confidentiality is tantamount in either situation. Keep the complaints to yourself, especially if you feel your colleague needs to escalate it to the next level of leadership.

4. Let the complaint go and allow for a shift in the dynamic

It’s easy to hold onto toxic conversations far beyond the actual interaction, even if you’re not the one venting. Once you’ve heard the complaint with empathy, it’s important to let it go. You could say, “Oof! That was a tough situation. I’m so glad we could talk it through. Do you want to take a minute to reset?” Colleagues offering moral support can make a quicker exit, too: “I’m going to take a deep breath and switch gears now.” No matter your role, modeling the willingness to let a complaint go helps create the space for a shift in dynamic.

How and when can I vent?

On a physical level, when we as humans experience negative feelings, it can trigger the release of stress hormones. The fight-or-flight response kicks in, which can cause us to act differently than we otherwise would.

Venting in this fight-or-flight mode can make others feel like you’re trying to set everyone on edge. Recognize the physical response and note how it feels in your body. Use some simple tools that can help you process the experience. For example, a brief mindfulness practice like counting to ten, observing your thoughts, or following your breath can reset your nervous system. If you can manage a break, step away for a short walk or a warm drink. Being hard on yourself only escalates those feelings, so don’t indulge in self-judgment.

You could also take five minutes to write your experiences down, which can help you process your feelings and gain greater clarity. All of these approaches offer a responsible way to move through the raw reaction while respecting other people’s boundaries. Releasing the stress before you have a conversation with others can release the need to talk about it, too.

If you do these exercises and you still want to share your experience, consider what would feel most helpful. During the conversation, stick to the facts and evaluate whether it’s a one-off issue. If not, what is your ideal outcome or solution? Most of all, choose to vent to someone who has the power to make the changes you envision.

Moving toward growth

Cultivating a positive work environment requires nuance, especially on a support team. When companies don’t give their employees the bandwidth to process tough experiences, leaders create a stifling environment that doesn’t allow people to bring their full selves to work. At the same time, though, having few to no boundaries around communication standards can have an equally toxic outcome. By proactively empowering support, creating guidelines, and building accountability, everyone can contribute to a culture that values the contributions of team members and continues to evolve for the better.

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