By Adam Rogers
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: