“This product sucks, and so does your company.”
Ever heard that before?
I have, and it hurts every time.
Nobody likes dealing with conflict, but you can’t really escape it as a CSM or in CS. Even the strongest customer relationships will encounter bumps in the road. There will always be negative feedback, just as there’s no such thing as a perfect product. The only difference is in degrees.
Sometimes customers will be highly emotional, and yell and bluster. Others will be coldly logical and pick your product apart bit by bit. Some products are well-made and attract fewer negative comments than average. Other products are so buggy or unintuitive that they should never have been released in the first place.
In Customer Success, you can’t control any of that.
What you can control, however, is how you respond to it.
Below, I’ve listed a few suggestions that can help you handle negative product feedback with grace and professionalism.
Emotions can be difficult to control, especially when you’re a naturally empathetic person who picks up on the feelings of others. To help preserve your mental health, you need to distance yourself from the conversation.
Don’t assume personal guilt when you’re not personally responsible. You are not the target of the customer’s anger; you’re just the visible representative of the company. Understand that they’re talking about the product, not you.
This helps reduce the chances that you’ll respond emotionally in turn and say something you (and the company) will regret.
The only time you would factor into the conversation is if the customer starts talking about the onboarding and implementation process. At that point, you should take extra care to not get emotional. It’s absolutely vital you weather that criticism with grace and respond professionally.
It may feel good emotionally to fire back at the customer and criticize them in turn. Even if it doesn’t become a shouting match, trading shot for shot is a horrible way to resolve the situation.
Questions do a much better job at disarming a customer for a number of reasons:
Also, asking questions helps unlock the other tips on this list.
Is the customer mad that your product’s reports aren’t working? Or are they mad that your product’s failings are making them look bad to their boss?
Any negative product feedback you receive will have a backstory, and it’s important for you to both sympathize and empathize with your customer’s situation.
What’s the difference, you ask?
Sympathy is when you acknowledge or feel sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.
Empathy is understanding and sharing the feelings of another.
Sympathy is about observing and accepting that the customer is going through a difficult situation. It is naturally detached from the situation. Empathy is the more intense emotional response of the two and helps you connect with the customer’s perspective better.
It’s possible to feel empathy for a customer’s difficulties, but not be sympathetic because they tried to use the product in a way it wasn’t meant to be used. On the other hand, it’s possible to sympathize with a customer’s challenge, but not be empathetic because their reaction is far out of proportion with the problem.
It takes skill and experience and emotional maturity to know how much of each is appropriate in a given situation, and this will develop over time as you grow in your role.
Acknowledge the customer’s challenge and commiserate with the emotion they’re feeling right now. They’ll feel better knowing that someone understands their perspective and will be more willing to work with you to find a solution.
Much of the negative feedback you’ll encounter as a CSM or CS will fall under the bucket of “training issue.”
I’ve met CSMs who make fun of or belittle customers who ask “basic questions” or complain about “simple issues,” sometimes to their face.
These may be trivial topics to you, but you live and breathe this product. The customer doesn’t have the same level of product training that you do. I’ll bet you wouldn’t do so well either if your roles were reversed. Be glad for it, because it’s an easy problem to solve and your customer will just be grateful for the help.
Sometimes the customer’s problem isn’t a training issue. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you can’t get exactly the result the customer is looking for.
You should be looking forward to situations like this. One of the best ways to build solid customer relationships is overcoming a negative situation. It’s an opportunity to be a consultative partner.
Remember when I suggested you ask questions? Dig deep to find out the root of the problem and what the customer is trying to achieve. Use your deep product knowledge to come up with a workaround that’s even better than what the customer first asked for.
Workarounds might involve a bit more effort or lateral thinking to pull off, and require the customer to compromise, but it’s far better to have a workable solution right now than the promise of a new product feature some time in the future.
Speaking of which...
Assure the customer that you’ll consult with the rest of the department and see if they’ve encountered a similar problem or request. Then - and here’s the important part - actually ask for help.
Don’t think you have to do it alone, or that asking will reflect badly on you as a CSM.
There is no “i” in “team,” but there is “team” in “team.”
You have a lot of brain power at your disposal. Ask the rest of your department (even if that’s just your manager) for ideas and potential solutions, sure, but don’t feel like you have to limit yourself to the CS team.
Present the question to the product team, too. They may tell you about a feature you’ve never used before, or a function that you didn’t know about. The product team may even be working on that very feature for the next release.
In the event that the feature doesn’t exist and isn’t planned for the future, you can submit it as a feature request. Follow the proper feature request procedure to increase your chances of success. Speak positively to the customer, but be honest, too.
Of course, asking the customer to submit a feature request carries some risk. The customer might consider it a sure thing - like ordering a custom meal at a restaurant - instead of merely an item to consider for the roadmap. You may want to present it as an “improvement idea” instead, to better set the customer’s expectations.
No customer is worth your mental health, but neither should you dread every difficult conversation. You have techniques, tactics, and team members available to help you navigate the encounter.
Remember that negative product feedback can be an opportunity for you to shine as a CSM or CS. You can still get a customer smiling and happy even if you're ultimately unable to resolve their need. And that’s the mark of a great customer experience.