Lessons Learned from The Customer Survival Kit

Awhile back I was reading a book called The Customer Survival Kit. It was FANTASTIC! I highly recommend it. Several months ago I ended up writing an internal p2 post about it and sharing my favorite takeaways with my team at Automattic. But I was recently talking to a friend who also works in support and I wanted to share my favorite quotes from the book, so I decided to post an excerpt of my original p2 post here:

Angry customers. I’m kinda terrified of them.


Whenever I encounter an angry customer, it takes a lot out of me emotionally/mentally. And I wanted to find a way to get a better handle on those interactions.

I’m not even done reading this book, but it has quickly become my go-to. I open it on a daily basis and try to apply it towards my interactions with customers.

This post started as a Simplenote of my especially favorite quotes, so I wouldn’t have to open up the book daily to find what I was looking for.

Acknowledging the customer…

Your inability to acknowledge people causes the vast majority of your most difficult customer situations. “Wait a minute!” you are probably thinking. “Why is it my fault when people get too emotional, have unrealistic demands, or won’t accept the best that we can do?” The reason is that more often than you think, these seemingly one-way encounters are really a dance with two partners. Here is why: Even outrageous customer behavior often calms down when it is heard instead of just reacted to. Conversely, it usually escalates when it isn’t heard.

The above quote was a light bulb moment for me, because it made me realize the part I play and the words I use in this interaction can either feed into it and make it worse or calm the customer down and work towards a solution.

There are many reasons why customers are unhappy, but only one reason they become angry: They do not feel heard. They feel voiceless and powerless, and respond by puffing themselves up and confronting you until you pay attention to them.
So you must head straight for the highest level of the ladder you can: Either identify with them or at the very least validate them. This means that the first step in calming down upset customers is likely the very last thing you feel like doing: acknowledging them as deeply and with as much gusto as possible.

Examples from the book (which I edited slightly to apply to the work we do)

Customer: I am absolutely furious with this stupid product! I’ve tried three different themes and nothing works! Your software is so complicated I can’t build a simple site! This is the third time I’ve have had to come back! What is the matter with you people?
Not-so-good response (defensive): Please calm down, and I’ll be happy to help you select a new theme.
Not-so-good response (paraphrasing): Sounds like your theme isn’t working for you.
Not-so-good response (observation): I can understand that you are very angry.
Better response (identification): Wow, three times! That would frustrate me too! Let’s take a closer look at this. Can you tell me what type of site we’re building today?

Why is acknowledging the concerns of your worst customers so difficult? I believe it is a simple problem of linguistics: We have a mistaken idea of what the word itself means. It does not mean that you are agreeing with the other person. Nor does it mean that you will give him whatever he wants. It just means that you respect his viewpoint, even if you personally disagree with it.

On the questions we ask customers

Good questions help turn an emotional situation into a factual one. They are particularly powerful in situations with upset customers because they move you toward the customer’s pain in a way that calms the customer down.

People often feel that their job with difficult customers is to challenge the customers’ perceptions. We ask them questions designed to convince them that they didn’t read our directions, follow our rules, or remember our policies.

I love to ask questions, but after reading the above quote I realized that in the heat of the moment when I feel defensive, I’ve been asking the wrong kinds of questions. Which is exactly the moment I need to be pulling out my best questions.

Instead ask them things like how they experienced the situation, what they tried to do first, and what they feel should have happened. You are not judging or agreeing at this stage—just putting yourself in their shoes and gathering information.

How to deliver bad news

We need to deliver bad news everyday. Everything from not being able to refund a plan that was purchased 6 months ago to a domain that expired and is no longer available.

Let’s get one thing out of the way right up front: The worst thing to say first when you are delivering bad news is the bad news.
If there is one guiding principle to telling people things they do not want to hear, it is: Give the bad news second. Not third or fourth or fifth; that is beating around the bush.


No introduction: Sorry, your flight was canceled.

Good introduction: I need to let you know about an important change in your travel plans. You were scheduled to leave on the 6: 15 flight tonight, and then connect in Minneapolis. We are going to need to reschedule your flights, and I want to go over some options with you.

Customers, especially difficult ones, are focused on, “What’s in it for me?” So ideally, your discussion will close with options that benefit the customer.

Imagine that someone checks into your hotel late at night, announces that he is starving, and your only restaurant just closed. This person’s only options are a dingy pizza parlor three blocks away or driving to another all-night restaurant.

Compare these two responses:
Not so good: I’m sorry, sir, our restaurant just closed.
Better: Since you are starving, and our own restaurant just closed, I’d like to suggest a couple of other options. First, there is Dingy Pizza. It is kind of a well-worn local eating place—it serves mainly pizza—but it is the closest restaurant that will still be open at this hour. If you would like a nicer place, I do have a couple of other suggestions within driving distance.

Just the fact that you are offering options serves an important purpose. It implies that the customer has a choice, and giving people choices is one of the more important ways of making bad news palatable to them. It also opens rather than closes dialogue.

The words you use

Compare: “I’m sorry, sir, you’ll have to hold to speak to someone,” and, “I can connect you to the right person, and it should be just a short wait”? Words, and nothing more. More often than you think, when a customer situation goes south, the reasons are often as simple as the words you chose.