Editor’s note: The following guest post is an adaptation of a talk delivered at SupConf, a conference for support professionals. The full slide deck can be found here.

Talking about negativity with support professionals is a bit weird. We’re a pretty positive group — after all, we got into this profession because we wanted to help people.

Still, one constant with building things is that your customers are going to tell you what they think, good or bad.

I vividly remember one piece of negative feedback I received. We had just launched a new post editor across WordPress.com when a customer sent in the following note:

“This is a primitive, poorly planned, dysfunctional piece of software. . . . It is so poorly designed — if ‘designed’ is a word that even applies — no amount of fixing will make it right.”

That stung. After all, my job is to ensure customers have the best possible experience across WordPress.com. Clearly, I was failing in this instance. Yet while this interaction was hard to swallow, the feedback was still about a thing — not about me, or specific to my actions.

Another example that sticks in my mind came from feedback I received after a customer interaction. When customers contact us through customer support, we send off a feedback form so they can rate their experience as a green, blue, or red robot and provide additional comments. In this particular case, I got a red robot and a stinging comment:

“My dog would have provided the same level of support.”

This one was about me and my actions. It hurt.

I share these particular interactions to illustrate a larger concept. As we’re building products, we’re inevitably going to run into customers who aren’t happy with what we’re building.

No matter how much we test along the way, we can’t eliminate unhappy users.

As the front line of the company working directly with our customers, we need to learn how to deal with negativity if we’re going to be successful support professionals. Here are three strategies for three specific timeframes: preparing for negativity ahead of time, confronting it head on, and addressing it after the fact.

Strategy #1: Rehearse objections ahead of time

By rehearsing potential objections ahead of time, you can prepare before real-life negative interactions occur. At Automattic, we start an internal blog post (called p2s) to think up potential questions about a new product or feature we’re going to launch that might attract polarizing opinions. For example:

“I’m visually impaired; why is this interface so small and lacking contrast?”

That’s a valid question and something we need to be discussing. These threads have three purposes:

  • Tackle negativity
  • Discuss rationale
  • Rehearse answers

First, tackling negativity forces everyone to confront the fact that some customers might not like the change we’re making. Addressing that ahead of time prevents anyone from looking at the situation with rose-colored glasses.

Second, we discuss the rationale for the change. In the example above, we might talk to our designers and developers and discuss the accessibility standards we adhered to in the development process.

Lastly, we rehearse our answers and get everyone on the same page. It’s not about creating support robots who copy and paste the same snippets to our customers. It’s about creating a consistent support experience so that if you contact us through email one day and then live chat the next, you’ll get similar answers around our products and future changes.

Strategy #2: Balance negativity

Our second strategy for handling negative customer interactions is maintaining an appropriate positivity ratio. In contrast to the negative interactions I mentioned, here’s a positive comment I received after helping a customer set up a theme by providing GIFs and screenshots:

“I have been showing my family his emails, and they too are in awe at how helpful he has been … ”

This kind of interaction is exactly what led me to pursue a career in customer support. It left me with a huge smile on my face.

In To Sell Is Human, Dan Pink discusses how door-to-door salespeople experience a heck of a lot of “no”s. How do you keep your head up amongst that level of negativity? Pink points to research on positivity ratios — the number of positive interactions to negative ones. If the ratio is high (say, 10:1), you’ll think nothing can go wrong (not necessarily realistic). A ratio of 1:1 is too pessimistic; the glass is half empty. A ratio of 3:1 is just about right.

While we don’t need to focus too specifically on the exact ratio, we do need to provide support professionals with tools to boost their positivity if they feel themselves slipping down the negativity slope. Here are four strategies we use at WordPress.com to do just that:

1. Happy file: Every Happiness Engineer is encouraged to create a happy file just for them. In that file, they keep amazing interactions like the one I showed above. When they feel down during the day, looking through the file is a quick way to pick themselves back up.

2. Peer reviews: We conduct peer reviews between Happiness Engineers a few times a year. The reviewer reads through ~15 of the reviewee’s interactions, looking for areas for improvement and also at things they’re doing well.

3. Spartan kudos: On a team-wide level, we do something called Spartan Kudos (the team I’m on is called Sparta). At the end of every month, one person reads through all the green robots with awesome comments and picks out the best one for each person. If you forget about how awesome your teammates are, this is an easy, quick reminder.

4. Happiness #hugs. On a Happiness-wide level, we aggregate awesome comments from our customers and post them to a company-wide feed with the hashtag #hugs. When you’re having a bad day, it’s easy to view the tag feed on the site and get a huge boost.

Strategy #3: Master explanatory style

We can explain negative interactions after the fact in a couple of ways. The feedback is either

permanent, pervasive, and personal,


temporary, specific, and external.

When you view a negative interaction as permanent (not going away), pervasive (everyone feels this way), and personal (there’s a part of me that plays into this), you feel like you have little control over your environment. Things are happening to you.

The alternative to “permanent, pervasive, and personal” is “temporary, specific, and external.” In this light, negative interactions become more manageable and actionable. First, negative interactions probably aren’t the norm (if they are, you’re doing something wrong). Second, negative feedback is usually specific to a certain product or “thing.” Finally, it’s external. It’s generally not about you or anything you are doing.

How do we put this into practice? I encourage Happiness Engineers to conduct personal reviews of negative feedback every so often to do the following:

  1. Look for areas they could have improved in the interaction (details they missed, ways they could’ve improved the service, and so on).

  2. Practice self-talk so these interactions don’t feel personal. This practice prepares support professionals to stomach any waves of negativity they might run into when navigating the queue.

Some people aren’t going to like what you build. That’s the cost of shipping things out into the world. If your product is great enough, there’s a good chance you’ll hear polarized opinions about it. But by preparing ahead of time, maintaining appropriate positivity ratios, and framing feedback as temporary, specific, and external, you can arm support professionals with ways to handle the negativity.

If you enjoyed this post, check out "How to Handle the Trickiest Support Scenarios," by Emily Triplett Lentz.

Jeremey DuVall

About the author: Jeremey DuVall is a support team lead and Happiness Engineer at Automattic.