When the Customer's Wrong. Protecting Your Team from the Worst Customer Feedback
Amid rising customer hostility, a question mark on the age-old saying “The customer is always right” is beginning to appear. Unfortunately, frontline staff have always faced the brunt of a customer's frustrations, and tensions have been high the last few years.
So when people have a tendency to offload their anger onto the first person they see: the frontline employee, businesses have a responsibility to provide a safe working environment. One where teams are protected from the worst kind of customer feedback. Here’s how.
Receiving nasty, unconstructive feedback is never easy, but if your frontline teams are prepared they’re more able to de-escalate situations calmly and confidently. Prepare employees in advance and have strategies in place to counter destructive feedback.
The first step in countering such feedback starts with recognizing it:
Constructive vs Destructive Feedback
The aim here is not to stamp out negative feedback altogether. Most of the time, negative feedback can identify areas of improvement. But sometimes, feedback can be more destructive than constructive. But how do you tell the difference?
Constructive Feedback: Constructive feedback offers an opinion about the services provided. For example, the departure lounge was a mess and the flight attendant didn’t offer to put my bags in the overhead, even though I was holding my baby in one arm. This feedback is constructive because it highlights issues with a service rather than personally attacking an employee.
Destructive Feedback: Destructive feedback is the opposite. It’s a personal attack that’s less about the service provided and more a projection from the customer. It can come in the form of aggressive, racist, sexist or xenophobic comments.
Your frontline employees should be able to identify the difference between constructive and destructive feedback, and have systems to follow if they receive feedback that’s unhelpful, abusive or irrelevant. For example, de-escalation techniques, an easy way of reporting abuse and access to managers or higher-ups for support in the moment and after the interaction.
One of the best ways to protect your teams from destructive feedback is to stop it reaching them in the first place. If you share customer feedback with your team, using a tool that picks up and flags comments that are aggressive, racist, include profanity or are derogatory in any way helps managers clear the comments before they reach the frontline.
As well as filtering about destructive feedback, you can also aim to filter out or acknowledge irrelevant comments too. For example, criticism that is out of the frontline associates control, like a poor online booking system or increased pricing.
Many AskNicely customers use the response moderation feature, which ensures the frontline team members only see relevant, helpful survey responses – not the nasty stuff. Using this feature, teams are able to review, remove and edit potentially harmful responses flagged by the keyword filter, protecting their teams from the angry keyboard warriors. You can read more about the response moderator here.
Not sure what your frontline team would need to feel supported and protected amongst rising customer hostility? Ask them. Your frontline associates interact with your customers every day and know what makes customers tick, and what ticks them off. Getting feedback from employees is one of the most effective solutions to preventing customer hostility in the first place.
Jeremy Hyde, Director of Customer Service for Sun Country Airlines has seen the benefits of asking staff what support they need when facing difficult customers. Jeremy has noted that when it comes to customer hostility, “unfortunately it’s gotten worse. The last two years, it is the worst I’ve ever seen in my career, to be honest, which is really sad”. In a quest to find out what his team needed to feel supported, he conducted a large-scale employee feedback initiative in which he found employees felt that recognition and reward, especially for dealing with difficult customers, was seriously lacking. Jeremy admitted “In hindsight, I was a little ashamed of that. I let all of the difficulty of the pandemic put these things a little bit on the back burner”. But this inspired positive change, and a playbook was developed in 2022. Its purpose was to develop meaningful ways to show appreciation and recognition to employees. All of this was possible though, because Jeremy asked, and provided a genuine listening ear.
Make sure your teams are provided a space to speak to managers about how they’re feeling, difficulties they’re having and are able to provide feedback to improve things. Balance face to face catch ups and 1 on 1s with digital solutions like feedback tools. It makes support more accessible to employees and makes it easier for managers to handle the needs of their team.
The best remedy for the grating hostility of nasty customers is to balance it with positivity and recognition. Remind teams of their value and counter negative feedback with positive feedback. An employee could receive 20 bits of positive feedback and just one hurtful comment and they’ll hold on to the hurtful one. To drown out the unconstructive, be sure to give your teams plenty of recognition and appreciation for the work they do. Give them shoutouts in company-wide meetings, send them personal messages of thanks and talk to them one-on-one about how important they are to the success of the team.
No one should have to work under fear of hostility and abuse – and we have a duty of care to protect our frontline workers and ensure they are treated with respect.
Prepare employees to differentiate destructive feedback from constructive feedback.
Filter out the unhelpful, abusive and irrelevant.
Listen to your team’s concerns.
Remind them of their worth.