When a customer is abrasive, we feel the aftermath lingering even after the problem is resolved. How does that influence our conversations with other customers? Does it stick with us through our tone and our support efforts?

Think of it like this: when someone cuts you off while driving, you are left in a state of frustration. As you’re heading home, you may be less forgiving when someone wants to merge into your lane.

To keep the front line strong, it’s important to ensure that the team is resilient and mindful of their mood. Like the flip of a switch, a bad interaction can trigger the desire for catharsis, increasing the chances of undesirable outcomes and undermining support’s objective to provide great service.

The question is, how do we flip back into a mindset where we aren’t ruminating and stressing over past friction so we don’t spoil future conversations?

Here’s a look at an interesting study.

“Can’t Get It Out Of My Mind”

A group of researchers did a study in 2011 on customer support mistreatment and how negative thinking transfers over to the next day. They published some startling conclusions in the Journal of Applied Psychology:

We found that on days that a service employee received more (vs. less) customer mistreatment, he or she ruminated more (vs. less) at night about negative experiences with customers, which in turn led to higher (vs. lower) levels of negative mood experienced in the next morning. In addition, our supplemental analyses showed that the effect of daily customer mistreatment lasted to the next day on rumination and lasted for 2 days on morning negative mood.

Think of how easy it is for one bad event to spoil your day. You get a harsh email in the morning—on a Monday—and do your best to resolve it, only to bring it up at lunch and again during dinner. The consistent analysis of what went wrong and how we were treated relentlessly feeds into our negative feelings—we see there was a reason to title this study, “Can’t get it out of my mind.”

But isn’t rumination a default reaction after we experience a failure, an attempt to sort the chaos into calm? The researchers offer a counterpoint on why traditional methods of coping, like rumination, are actually unhelpful in this situation:

Our findings suggest that rumination is not a response that produces positive outcomes of the stressful situation; thus, it differs from traditionally studied coping mechanisms.

In fact, researchers have consistently pointed out that coping mechanisms are generally adaptive in terms of managing the initial negative affect generated by stressful situations, whereas rumination is maladaptive in terms of prolonging the initial negative affect generated by stressful situations, even though rumination may be perceived by individuals to be functional in terms of reflecting how things went wrong and how they might improve in the future to attain the goal.

The idea is that we often perceive reflecting on a topic to be more effective than it actually is. Although this kind of reaction is commonplace, it turns out that all it does is influence us to wallow in our anger. There are also practical implications to this that can potentially set us up for more failure:

Previous studies have demonstrated that starting a day with a negative mood is likely to lead to faked rather than authentic positive emotions toward customers and lowered threshold to trigger employee sabotage behavior against customers during customer service interactions.

What makes this even more alarming is how subtle and undetected this can become.

Let’s assume that not every company values the kind of vulnerability where employees can freely express their failures and frustrations without the fear of looking incompetent. How do those employees deal with these emotionally grueling events, where they’re being called an idiot or have to do damage control on a loyal customer who’s having a really bad day?

And that’s just one conversation. Imagine hour after hour, every other email being a complaint, frustration, or threat.

Anger Begets More Anger

Should companies set up rooms where support can scream into pillows and jab punching bags? Logically this makes sense, but it’s scientifically false.

David McRaney, in You Are Not So Smart, shared a study done by Brad Bushman on why releasing anger with anger puts us on an emotional hamster wheel.

The long and short of it is that if you think catharsis is good, you are more likely to seek it out when you get angry. When you vent, you stay angry and are more likely to keep doing aggressive things so you can keep venting.

In a way it becomes drug-like—the more accustomed you are to blowing off steam, the more dependent on it you become. The tough, but straightforward, path is to take your anger off the stove.

McRaney continues his contrarian take on managing frustration, citing professor Brad Bushman’s research on the subject:

Bushman’s work also debunks the idea of redirecting your anger into exercise or something similar. He says it will only maintain your state or increase your arousal level, and afterward you may be even more aggressive than if you had cooled off. Still, cooling off is not the same thing as not dealing with your anger at all. Bushman suggests you delay your response, relax or distract yourself with an activity totally incompatible with aggression.

That isn’t to say that physical activity isn’t useful for managing your emotions, but that packing that anger in your gym bag and taking it with you speaks to the old saying that “holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

So far, three principles are evident:

  • Customer support mistreatment elicits rumination, and in turn, creates a cloud of negative feelings that overshadow us the next day.
  • Approaching support queues in a bad mood negatively influences how we speak to customers, sometimes without us even knowing it.
  • To deal with our frustrations, we mustn’t relentlessly complain about the event or run it through our own heads, nor punch pillows.

What, then, is the solution?

Sometimes Support Needs Support

The study above by Wang and others provides helpful feedback on dealing with this everyday occurrence:

Our findings suggest that blocking ruminative thoughts may be an important step to prevent the negative affect from prolonging and forming into negative emotional experience for service employees. Toward this front, it may be beneficial for employees to engage in tasks and activities that could fulfill their self-goal pursuit after work.

For example, it may be good for service organizations to hold brief feedback and mentoring sessions after a day’s work to go over the negative customer encounters that happened during the day and allow employees to ruminate productively with the guidance regarding how to deal with such situations in the future. In the long run, these actions may help organizations to keep valuable service employees and secure their welfare.

When we step away from “the grind”, it allows us to reset our focus and gain some clarity. When we invite team members to help us deal with our frustrations, especially after a long day of support, we gain a newfound perspective to help us do better work and become more mentally sound. This is vital not only to the quality of our work but to our overall health.

Tackling support requires emotional labor, and in order to provide great customer service, it cannot thrive on destructive emotions. You will inevitably face a “troll” or a tough customer, and unlike other situations in life, you can’t lash out or quit; you have to be resilient, adhere to the customer’s demands, and solve the problem.

But support shouldn’t be alone in this endeavor; they mustn’t sit there, hour after hour, bottling up feelings only to drudge on the next day.

The team must rally together to not only support the front line but also
bolster and sustain it.

After all, who better represents the voice of a company than the people who speak directly to customers?

A team member on support who’s about to implode is a sign of a broken strategy—if there was ever a time to put the “management” back in support manager, it’s in taking care of your people.

Although resilience and self-awareness are must-haves while working in support, the research we’ve discussed clearly shows that marching forward without acknowledging the potential problems caused by abrasive customers could lead to a misuse of language, and in turn, make good employees say the wrong things at the wrong time.

Make sure your support team has support, creating opportunities for them to speak up, get feedback, learn from experience, talk with leadership, and help alleviate frustrations the healthy way, all without resorting to an after-work Fight Club to blow off steam.

Paul Jun

About the author: Paul Jun is on the marketing team at Help Scout, the invisible help desk software. Learn how Help Scout takes the headache out of email support.