Anyone who’s ever manned a support queue knows that one angry customer can ruin your whole day. You’re busy tackling cases when a scathing email suddenly knocks the wind out of you. Even if you’re a seasoned support agent, it’s hard to not take it personally.

Responding to angry customers is one of the hardest parts of the job, but also one of the most important. Unhappy customers tend to be more blunt and open with their feedback, and engaging with them productively can go a long way.

So how do you do it?

A Little Psych Lesson First…

In the 1980s, psychologist Martin Seligman coined the term Explanatory Style to describe “the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why events happen” (Seligman, 1990). Basically, your explanatory style determines in large part how you perceive and respond to situations, like emails from angry customers.

According to Seligman, there are three main characteristics that separate optimists from pessimists, called the 3Ps:

  • Personalization – the perception of causality (internal or external); pessimists see personal causes (“it was my fault”) while optimists see external causes (“it was the circumstances”)
  • Permanence – the perception of time (permanent or temporary); pessimists see setbacks as permanent (“I’ll never win”) while optimists see setbacks as temporary (“it didn’t work out this time”)
  • Pervasiveness – the perception of space (global or specific); pessimists see setbacks as pervasive (“nothing works out for me”) while optimists see setbacks as specific (“this didn’t work out, but other things will”)

A real-world example of explanatory style

Seligman’s findings are particularly interesting in the context of customer-facing roles. An employee’s explanatory style not only impacts the way they communicate with customers, but it can predict their longevity with a company. Back in the ’90s, insurance company MetLife was experiencing high employee turnover in telemarketing sales. For many employees, the constant rejection was just too much. Half of their new hires would quit in the first year.

MetLife turned to Martin Seligman to identify why employees stayed or left. Seligman found that their explanatory style was highly predictive of their retention rate. Those with a more optimistic style stuck around twice as long. Even better, they outsold their pessimistic peers by around 31%.

Sounds like a pretty useful skill to have for people who deal with a lot of negative feedback, right? MetLife was so impressed by this outcome, they changed their entire hiring process to test and screen based on explanatory style.

How to use the 3Ps in customer support

MetLife’s radical approach might not be realistic for your company, but there are simple ways to apply this psychology to your support processes. For example, you could implement a case review process using the 3Ps whenever agents receive particularly negative product feedback. Ask your support team to run through questions like these:

  • Do you think it’s your fault that you got this response, or was it something else?
  • Do you feel that your tone frustrates people?
  • What do you think the consequences will be for you and the company?
  • Can the customer’s anger be mollified? If not, will we get over their loss quickly or not?
  • Do you think this will affect the company and your career?
  • Do you think this will affect life in general?

The simple act of thinking methodically through causes and consequences can lessen the blow. As agents answers these questions, they’ll gradually recognize that one negative interaction won’t have a big impact on their job, the business, or their personal life.

Responding to Negative Product Feedback

Now that we’ve covered the basic concepts of explanatory style, let’s look at a realistic customer scenario. Say you’re checking the support queue and you see an email like this.

product complaint email

We’re often inclined to follow our instincts and emotions in stressful situations, but there is a formula that works best, and it uses the same three components most customer support emails do:

  1. Acknowledge the customer’s frustration and restate it back to them in your own words. Thank them for sharing their product feedback.
  2. Align with the customer. Let them know you’ve heard them and understand this is important to them.
  3. Assure the customer you’ll resolve their issue if you aren’t able to within the first email exchange.

Here’s a customer support email template you could use to respond.

angry customer email template

This response is powerful because a) you take the blame away from yourself and b) you acknowledge their frustrations and dig into the real problem at hand.

Prioritizing Bug Fixes & Feature Requests

When the customer responds, it’s time to analyze their feedback and consider if it’s worthwhile to develop a solution. There are many different ways you can determine the value of product feedback, but we use two methods: the Feature Prioritization Matrix and the 5 Whys Technique.

The Feature Prioritization Matrix

At Kayako, we use a feature prioritization matrix to decide which bug or feature request we’re going to work on next. This approach uses a basic rating scale with 4 primary criteria, seen below.

  • Support priority: 1 – 10 (Since we use our own tool to support our customers, we’re essentially asking if we agree with their feedback—is this an issue for our support team as well? The higher the number, the more we agree.)
  • Paying customer? No = 1, Yes = 2
  • Impact to customer: 1= low, 2 = no significant impact to their customers (our customer’s customers), 3 = impacts them and their customers
  • Number of customers affected: 1= low, 2 = several, 3 = most

Once we’ve assigned a rating for each one, we add up the points. The higher the total, the more important the request.

The 5 Whys Technique

Another popular method is the “5 Whys” technique, coined by Toyota. This approach uses a series of questions to , starting with the symptom or The goal is to get to the root cause of manufacturing errors. Even if you’re not in the auto industry, you can apply this thinking to any product in order to get to the heart of an issue. This is the example Toyota offers:

Toyota 5 Whys

Even if you’re not in auto industry, you can apply the 5 Whys approach in your own business to your team identify the core cause, find a solution, and prevent the issue from recurring in the future.

Advocate for the Customer Internally

Support acts as an intermediary between the customer and the product manager or developers, which often means passing customers’ product feedback along to product managers. That puts pressure on support to rally for the customers’ needs and look out for the business. Demonstrating how customer feedback aligns with company goals is the best way to push requests forward. Here’s how to do it.

  1. Humanize the issue. While quantitative feedback is critical, it’s often the raw, qualitative customer feedback that has the biggest impact. Show your product team customers’ comments so they can read the frustration themselves. If it’s not resonating, encourage product managers to connect with customers directly.
  2. Talk business value. Keep returning to your feature prioritization matrix. Show your product manager the results. You’ve got quantitative metrics that demonstrate how important this is to your product, your customers, and the business as a whole.
  3. Present customer feedback regularly. Support agents are ultimately customer advocates. By making a habit of presenting customer feedback to the product team, you’ll give customers a voice internally. That doesn’t just lead to better products and happier customers—it also makes your job easier in the long run.

Close the Customer Feedback Loop

Once you’ve done what you can to resolve the issue, it’s time to circle back with the customer.

Thank them again for their product feedback

Acknowledging product feedback is an essential part of healthy customer relationship management. When huge businesses like Charles Schwab and Apple run a Net Promoter Score survey, they try to contact every detractor (unhappy customer) within 24 hours. Even if you can’t solve a customer’s problem, you can thank them for sharing their thoughts and set their expectations.

Update them on the status of their request

Customers often expect their feedback to get buried and forgotten, so it’s a pleasant surprise to get a follow-up. If your team releases the feature they wanted or fixes the bug they reported, get back in contact to share the good news. Here’s a follow-up email template you can use.

thank customers for feedback


Don’t let angry customers get you down. The Explanatory Style framework can help your team turn those gut-punching emails into positive growth. Negative feedback can be a real gold mine. Presenting quantitative and qualitative feedback to your product manager is a sure route to improve your product, and your best chance at turning angry users into customers for life.