A Playbook for Difficult Customer Support Scenarios

There’s nothing scarier than opening up your inbox and seeing an unexpectedly huge queue. Your first instinct is to ask, Is there something wrong? Should I let someone know? Did Oprah put us on her favorite things list again? If the count is high enough, you may even start bordering on a panic attack: Your brain starts to scramble to solve the situation while your body feels almost paralyzed in its movement. Too real?

So what do you do? Luckily, there are only a few situations in which you would get enough incoming conversations to feel this level of anxiety, and we’ve got you covered with some tips and tactics to crush your anxieties and fears and the large bucket of requests for help that you have in the inbox.

The best thing you can do to get in front of a situation like this is to have a playbook in place. That way, rather than asking questions in the thick of a tricky situation, everyone already knows where they should be going and what needs to get taken care of. When you’re driving somewhere, you’d rather know the whole plan ahead of time, rather than be instructed on the turns to take as they come up, right? It’s the same with support — work with your team to have these strategies planned and ready for the next time things get hairy.

1. Defective product releases or updates

Every once in a while you might release a new version or make a change to your existing product that just doesn’t work. Perhaps the change breaks the functionality entirely, or people miss the old features that the product used to have. This happens to all companies, whether big or small, and it’s something that every support team should be prepared for. In the event that there is a product change that has been totally botched for your company, there are a few steps that you should take as a support team:

  1. Write a saved reply that you can send to people who are angry or upset about the changes, including information about why the changes were made and when they can expect it to be changed back or fixed if possible.
  2. Create a workflow in your help desk that automatically tags any tickets associated with this specific product change. This way you can better track how many people were affected, and you’ll be able to reach out to them later if you need.
  3. Work with your team to create a post-mortem that includes some of the statistics from the change so that you can use the data for product decisions moving forward.

Once you start responding to tickets, remember that your customer is upset that something that they (typically) paid for is not working. If you were in the same position, how would you feel? Cultivate some of that empathy before you start wading out into the sea of people who are frustrated about this change. As Psychology Today writes: “even though our tendency to be helpful and empathetic is part of our biological inheritance, it needs to be nurtured—for some people more than others.” Take a moment to nourish some of that in yourself prior to moving on to respond.

In your response, acknowledge that the issue was painful for them, align yourself with them by using similar language, and then assure the customer with an explanation about why the change occurred.

If the customer begins to escalate or grow even more frustrated despite the explanation, take a moment to breathe and remind yourself again that something they’re expecting to just work is not working, or has totally changed. Find that empathy, and stay firm but kind in your explanations.

2. Your site or payment services are down

Sometimes outages are related to something that your company does, but it’s also equally possible that the outages are due to a service that you use for your website hosting or payment processing. Either way, it’s your team’s problem to handle. No matter whose fault it is or how the problem started, it’s yours to clean up. Here are a few steps to take to make sure things are in the right place for an outage before you get down to digging through the tickets:

  1. Make sure that your team knows that there is a problem.
  2. Post an outage banner on your store or site, or post to social media to let customers know that there are issues and you’re on top of it.
  3. Create an empathetic saved reply attached to a workflow (if your help desk offers them) to apply a specific “outage” tag to any conversations where you used that saved reply. This will allow you to track how many people were affected by the problem so you can both follow up later to invite them to try their purchase again, and to track how many people had issues.
  4. Put one person on duty for each of your different support channels to monitor any additional incoming volume.

Once you get to responding, as Help Scout writes, don’t forget that no matter how tricky your situation, your customers are likely in an even worse spot. They have no control over the situation and are relying on you to protect and take care of them. So, no matter how frustrated you are, you need to take care of them first.

Fast Company writes:

“When a goal that matters to you gets blocked, that feels bad. The more important the goal, the stronger the negative feeling. When circumstances cause the goal to fail, then you’re frustrated by those circumstances. But when an individual is the source of the blockage, then you get angry at them–since they’re the source of the problem.”

If you feel angry at your customer, or start to feel frustration creep in, remember the above. They had a goal to purchase something from your store, and their goal was blocked by your site problem. Use your saved replies to respond to as many customers as you can, personalizing as needed. Remember that this will not be forever, and as soon as you can fix your infrastructure issues, you’ll be good to go.

When you respond to your customers, let them know clearly what is happening, acknowledge that you have made a mistake, and try to build their confidence by letting them know that you are working on the solution and hope to have it resolved soon.

3. Difficult feedback on social media

Social media is great for many things: sharing insights quickly, communicating with people from far away, and providing support from a distance. It is highly transparent, which means it’s great for building an audience, but also — less than great when that audience is angry with you.

So, when customers reach out to you on social media complaining about something, whether big or little, you need to respond in a timely manner — doubly so if that feedback is aggressive or you’ve spoken with the person before. Not only do you need to reply, but you need to reply in a way that, when potentially seen by all of the customer’s family and friends and the whole of the internet, comes across kind and helpful. Yikes. That’s a lot of pressure. Here are some steps that might help:

  1. Read the tweet/comment/post over a few times to make sure you understand what the crux of their anger or frustration is about.
  2. Consider if social media is the best venue, or whether you might want to shift to direct messaging, email, or even phone support. Determine if the customer would be amenable to that option.
  3. Either shift the conversation delicately to another venue, or draft a response that is both short enough to fit within the confines of that platform’s rules and thorough enough to address their issue satisfactorily and with kindness. Try to answer their question as directly as you can.

You should strive to de-escalate the conversation over social media so that anyone following along can experience the resolution from start to finish. After all, long after the conversation has disappeared from your timeline, it will be indexed on Google for everyone to find and use. Keep the conversation polite and give clear instructions so that you can both de-escalate the customer in the present and proactively help the customer in the future with documentation resources.

Consider talking to an angry customer as if you were a crisis prevention officer. The Crisis Prevention Institute says:

“[We stress] the importance of listening with empathy, trying to understand where the person is coming from. Like other skills, empathic listening can be learned. The five keys are: give the person undivided attention; be nonjudgmental; focus on the person’s feelings, not just the facts; allow silence; and use restatement to clarify messages.”

Use those guidelines, and you’ll be excellent.

Related: Customer Service Question and Answer Library

4. Running out of inventory

Yay, you’re popular! Oh no, you’ve run out of inventory! If your super-popular product oversold or went viral because of something on Kickstarter or being featured on a holiday list like Oprah’s, your support team can be in hot water reaching back out to all of those customers who might have their delivery delayed. Whether it’s a minor delay or hugely major, it’s still important to communicate properly and set the right expectations for your customers. Instead of over-promising and under-delivering, set your goals high and communicate to your customers your business plans. Here are some first steps you can take to lessen the load on your team:

  1. If you have the product listed on your site still, either remove it or make a note on it that shipping will be delayed. Include the actual amount of time of the delay so that customers ordering for a holiday will know if they’ll receive it in time or not.
  2. For people who have already ordered prior to the realization that you have oversold your product, reach out via email at their billing email using a templated response to let them know about any changes to shipping.
  3. Create saved responses to continue to reach out as shipping or production changes occur, whether to shorten the wait or lengthen it. Even if the conversations letting customers know that it will be an even longer wait are difficult for your team to have, they are important for maintaining trust and saving the potential for repeat customers.

Over-communicating, rather than under-communicating, is the best policy in this case. For example, even without an oversale, Indiegogo requires all of its campaigners to send updates once a month. If there are no changes to your delayed ship date, and it’s farther out than a month, communicating once a month with the people waiting for your product is a good bet. However, if something changes to extend the delayed ship date (boo!) or to shorten the wait (yay!), communicate it as soon as it happens using the saved responses mentioned above.

A note on apologies and coupons

When things go wrong, often our first instincts are to apologize profusely and try and make it up to the customer. This is a great response! But what actually matters to a customer when they are upset and still waiting for whatever they ordered from you?

It turns out that a genuine apology when you’re to blame is often the best course. Saying sorry when resolving a bad situation can increase customers’ satisfaction with the outcome to 74%, according to the Carey School of Business.

Once the customer actually receives their order, it’s sometimes nice to woo the customer back for a repeat purchase with a credit or a discount coupon as a gesture of appreciation for their patience. But offering this immediately upon discovering the issue isn’t very effective — the customer doesn’t have what they want, so what good will a discount do them? Thirty percent off of nothing is still nothing.

Batten down the hatches!

Tough support interactions are no fun — for either the customer or the support employee. By using these tips and creating resources for your customer support people, you’ll give them a standard playbook to go by when things might get tough. You’ll make it easier for everyone to know what to expect and to do their job well, and you’ll create a better experience for your customers, who are now working with people who are equipped with the tools to support these types of situations.

Even better: Think about how else these strategies might be applied in your support experience. Playbooks make a clean and easy path for everyone to follow and work together toward providing an excellent, straightforward support experience. Go forth with confidence that your team will be prepped for the most challenging support scenarios!

Mercer Smith Looper

Mercer Smith Looper

Mercer is an experienced online customer service leader, currently leading the support team at AppCues. Outside of work you’ll probably find her upside down in a yoga pose.