How to Handle the Trickiest Support Scenarios

Once you’ve been at it a while, the majority of customer support conversations are a piece of cake. “Can I do X?” Yep, here’s how! “How do I do Y?” No problem, check out this tutorial. You can glance at almost any email and fire off a response in under 30 seconds, especially when it’s a common enough query that it merits its own saved reply.

But every now and again, you’ll come across a situation you can’t resolve right away. Maybe you need to pull in another team member; maybe you’ve got to go a little off-script; maybe you go pour a cup of coffee and scratch your noggin for a while.

Here are a handful of not-so-easy scenarios you may come across and some guidance on how to handle them.

When you’re in the wrong

Whoops! Say a bug deletes some of a user’s settings or your site is under a DDoS attack. Excessive technical details won’t placate many customers or make the inability to use your product or access your site any less annoying. Instead:

  • apologize outright
  • explain the game plan
  • let them know how you’ll be in touch
  • follow up when it’s fixed

Earlier this year, Help Scout faced some uncharacteristic downtime. It was a terrible feeling, but we knew we couldn’t just stick our heads in the sand and hope people wouldn’t notice. We sent our customers the following email:

Hello friend,

Help Scout had two notable status events this week, resulting in roughly 51 minutes of downtime. Considering our track record and only 61 minutes of downtime in the last year, this week's performance was disappointing for our whole team.

I'm writing you this note to apologize for such a poor experience. We understand how critical it is for Help Scout to be up and running at all times and we take that responsibility very seriously.

We learned a lot from the challenges this week and feel very confident in our ability to prevent them from repeating. We'll get to work on improvements right away. In the meantime I hope you have a great weekend!

Nick Francis

co-founder at Help Scout

We were touched by how understanding people were. Nearly all the replies we received were along the lines of, “That’s okay, folks; we know how it goes sometimes! Keep up the great work!” When you own up to your mistakes, follow up promptly, and take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again, you’ll find your customers can be a forgiving bunch.

When you don’t know

Don’t beat yourself up for not knowing an answer. A support rep’s responsibility is to have the tenacity to make things right, not to be perfect (especially true if you’re new).

If your average response time is 30 minutes, don’t leave a customer hanging for hours just because you don’t know how to answer their question. Reply to let them know you’re looking into it, and you’ll be in touch as soon as you know more.

Should you need to assign the conversation to another team, they may realize the issue could take a while. Have processes in place whereby other teams can either reply to the customer to tell them they’re working on it, or flip the conversation back to support so the customer isn’t left in the lurch.

When a customer wants you to bend security policies

Support professionals’ natural inclination to help can leave team members open to social engineering if they aren’t careful. If your product has different permissions that deal with security or payment responsibilities, for example, you’ll have customers ask you to switch their roles, such as transferring account ownership.

You’ll want to assist right away. You might even hear, “Please, we need this right now!” Hold steady. You’ll need approval from the current account owner. Email that person (separately, so the reply can’t be spoofed), and let the person making the request know you’ve done so and that it’s all about keeping their account safe. When the owner responds, check to make sure the original message you sent is included in the reply.

No detail is too small when it comes to security.

You may still run into something like, “But the account owner is on vacation/has been fired/is very busy and important!” There’s always something, isn’t there? For these situations, it helps to have a policy you can point to on your website. That way, they know you’re not being obstinate; rather, you’re serious about security and unable to make exceptions. That isn’t always easy for people to stomach, but you’ve still got to do the right thing.

When you need to say no

Feature requests you’re not going to grant, items you don’t have in stock, rules that can’t be bent—you can’t always say yes, but you don’t have to be a meanie about it. We’ve covered that here.

Remember that a customer’s perception of your service is affected by how attentive, thoughtful, and sincere you are. In an awkward scenario where you simply have to refuse a request, showcasing your empathy and willingness to find an alternative is one of the best ways to lessen the sting of saying “no.”

When customers get angry

Support professionals are often required to act like lightning rods: to take the brunt of an emotional, angry customer despite the fact it’s not their fault. Whether or not the anger is justified, it’s hard to win back a severely angry customer (even the best businesses can’t make everyone happy), but the folks at Telephone Doctor have a great system called “ASAP” for dealing with these most difficult of customers:

  • Apologize sincerely. “I’m sorry” is mandatory in these situations, even if it isn’t your fault. Consider your “I’m truly sorry about that” a personal apology to the customer that the experience wasn’t up to their expectations, not that you are to blame.

  • Sympathize. Angry customers are often just as interested (if not more interested) in hearing that someone empathizes with their situation over getting the actual problem fixed. Even if you cannot understand the depths of their fury, you can imagine how you’d like to be treated if you happened to be that upset. Small phrases like, “I understand how upsetting that must have been” let the customer know you’re their advocate and on their team in the pursuit to make things right.

  • Accept responsibility. As the ambassador of your company, you accept responsibility for the customer’s unhappiness. This doesn’t make you “at fault,” nor does it give the customer leeway to demand whatever they want, but it does give them someone to talk to instead of being angry at a faceless company (i.e., “I’m so sorry our product has been so disappointing thus far, Ms. Peabody, but I’ll make sure that we get this situation fixed for you.”).

  • Prepare to help. With angry customers, the actual “fix” tends to take up a small portion of the entire support process. The “emotional fix” is often the most important element: refunding someone may take you 15 seconds, but did you spend enough time helping them calm down and leave happy?

Should a customer cross the line and mistreat a team member, shut it down.

The team needs to feel safe and like leadership has their backs.

Your reply to the customer should point out the abusive language and state that while you wish to be their advocate, that requires mutual respect. In most cases, that’s enough to de-escalate the situation. If not, you’re within your rights to cancel the account.

It’s hard to come up with a perfect solution for a customer in this state, and know that even if you handle things perfectly, some people simply cannot be appeased. Don’t let that stop you from making your best effort.

When the customer asks to speak with a manager

If you messed up, pass the conversation on with context to the team lead and you’ll both figure it out from there. Mistakes happen.

The buck should stop with you, however, if a customer requests “the manager” just to get around an accurate, honest response. When you’re acting with certainty, speak with kind authority: “I’m afraid my supervisor would have to tell you the same thing. I’m really sorry we don’t have a better answer for you!”

If they don’t drop it, well, that’s what team leads are for. I’ve also seen it work where one team member hands off the conversation to another, who reiterates the message in different words: “I’m afraid June is right—we currently don’t have a feasible workaround. I’m so sorry about that!” Often, a second opinion is enough to convince the customer there’s nothing more to be done.

An ounce of prevention…

Difficult support situations aren’t easy (or fun) to handle, and there’s no “perfect” solution for every problem. But with a little preparation, you’ll be better suited to approach these scenarios with tact and grace. That allows you to keep standards high and make better decisions, no matter what comes your way.

Emily Triplett Lentz

Emily Triplett Lentz

Emily is the blog editor and content strategy lead at Help Scout. You can find her on Twitter.