How KnowledgeOwl turns lemons into lemonade in customer support

Catherine Heath | February 7, 2020

Illustration of an owl with lemons and lemonade

It’s pretty rare that companies (and humans in general) can handle complaints well. It shouldn’t be that hard to respond well to a customer complaint, and yet frequently it is. 

When someone complains, it naturally arouses our instinct to defend ourselves, and avoid blame for negative situations. But it doesn’t have to be this way. 

Our Knowledge Goddess and Chief Executive Owl Marybeth says, “At one point I used to refer to lemons (complaints/issues/disasters/etc) as opportunities to be awesome. You can't control everything that happens and prevent all lemons (would be nice!) but you can control how you react. 

“And, if you look at bad situations as opportunities or challenges, they become fun to deal with.”

The pendulum of customer feeling

Marybeth says, “I hesitate to say this, because I never like when things go wrong, but I think customers actually like us more when we have had major issues.”

This is a revolutionary concept – a customer’s ill-feeling is not set in stone. We can do more than simply offer “damage control”. 

“I think it's way easier to take someone who is really upset and make them love you, than to get someone who is indifferent to love you,” says Marybeth. “It's like a pendulum. If they swing really far into the negative, you have to momentum to swing back to the positive.”

If you think about it, this idea makes perfect sense. Love is much closer to hate than it is to indifference. Your customers’ feelings towards you exist on a pendulum.

This particular mindset is crucial to cultivate when it comes to dealing with customer service “lemons”. Rather than trying to completely avoid or dismiss negative situations, we should recognize them as an opportunity to make lemonade.

Marybeth says, “If you can find the little parts of your customer experience and find the opportunities to exceed expectations, you are well on your way to making lemonade.”

Our Head Product & Documentation Owl and Cheese Monger, Kate, says, “As Marybeth has noted, when people reach out with frustration or irritation, they have a great deal of feeling/emotion in that moment. 

“Channeling that emotion properly leaves customers with a kind ofpositive emotional residue.”

Zingerman’s Five Steps for Handling Complaints

When considering how to turn lemons into lemonade in customer support, it’s helpful to turn to another framework. 

Zingerman's 5 steps for handling complaints are: 

  1. Acknowledge – Get back to your customers quickly; pick up the phone if necessary
  2. Apologize – Offer an instant and sincere apology for the pain that has been caused
  3. Make it right – Do what you can to fix the situation, or let the customer know how they can fix it, or how you will fix it
  4. Document it – record bugs that need to be fixed and keep track of requests
  5. Thank them – Sincerely thanking customers for their time shows you appreciate the effort they’ve gone through to alert you to the problem

With these five steps as our inspiration, we will now go through five actions you can take to turn customer support lemons into lemonade. 

1. The power of a fast apology

Marybeth says, “Apologizing for and acknowledging the situation is so powerful. And if you also do whatever you can to make it right, you can often turn detractors into promoters.”

Apologizing doesn’t mean that you’re losing face in front of customers. It means that you are willing to own responsibility for the problem, and are willing to listen to them.

“Most of the time, customers are wowed by you acknowledging and apologizing. In customer service, there is generally a desire to make things right and fix problems immediately. 

Listening to your customers

“However, if we think about what the customer actually wants, sometimes what they want more than their problem being fixed is someone to listen to them. Listen to them vent. Listen to them complain. Letting them get it out before you try to make it right or fix it is important.”

Sometimes, when customers are particularly upset, the last thing we want to do is apologize to them. In these situations, there’s still something you can do. 

“For the worst of the worst,” Marybeth says, “If someone is super angry, frustrated, upset, or getting mean, picking up the phone and calling them is a powerful option. Sometimes hearing another person can help de-escalate the situation.

“Also, it shows the email really affected you. So much you felt it was imperative to apologize in person and figure out a solution together.”

Even though the problem may not actually be your fault, apologizing sincerely is a sure-fire way to defuse any building tension and start making lemonade.

Apologizing to the many

Sometimes, a problem is so big that it means the company has created lemons on a mass scale.

“When there is a large problem like an outage, an awful bug affecting many people, or you make a horrific mistake by sending a bad email, these are the situations with the greatest opportunity because your response is affecting more people. Some of the best customer feedback is often in response to the worst situations, and I believe it's because it's refreshing to see them handled well.”

Being willing to apologize in public is a powerful indicator that your company is willing to own responsibility, and a way to turn lemons into lemonade. We like this example from Buffer

“I've had to send out a handful of apologize emails,” Marybeth says, “And the response to those emails has always been extremely positive. If you can take responsibility, sincerely apologize, and let people know how you are going to make it right and prevent things, it really has the power to elevate peoples' perception of the company.”

2. Responding quickly to your customers

It may seem obvious, but in order to turn lemons into lemonade you need to respond quickly to any email that looks like a complaint.

Marybeth says, “The number one thing is being able to respond quickly and personably when there is a bad/upsetting/negative customer support email. Just knowing that a real person heard you and is going to help, even if you don't have a solution, often goes a long long way.”

A fast response can act as a salve to customers who feel resentful that your company has let them down. It’s even better if you can talk to them over the phone.

How to handle an emergency

Marybeth says, “When you call KO, we give people the chance to leave a voicemail for a callback or try to reach someone if it's an emergency. If it's an emergency, it tries ringing my phone for a while. If I don't pick up, they can keep waiting (keep ringing my phone) or leave an emergency voicemail that sends more alerts. Anyway, someone did the emergency thing last night.

“In their voicemail, they acknowledged that it might not be an actual emergency, but it was important for them because they just went live with their site. I called them back immediately, and over the series of a few phone calls helped them solve their problem.

“The customer continued to tell me how amazing everyone has been each time they had an issue, and he was blown away by the level of customer service and support we provide.”

It might seem extreme, but providing a way for customers to contact you in an “emergency” means that the few who do will appreciate the level of support you give them.

Marybeth continues, “I think this is generally the case when people use that emergency option and leave voicemails. Generally when someone chooses that option, the situation is bad. They are frustrated, upset, and they were not able to reach someone immediately. But handling those emergencies well generally leads to lots of good feelings between the customers and us.”

In other words, an emergency situation (at least, in the customer’s eyes) is one of the biggest opportunities for you to make lemonade. But what if you’re a small company with limited support resources?

“In fact, we have a somewhat lemony situation where we aren't able to pick up the phone most of the time. It would be nice, but we are a small team so people mostly have to leave voicemails. And calling people back quickly often blows them away and they thank us for being so responsive.”

3. Taking their feedback seriously

It’s important to understand that any customer who complains is actually doing you a favor. Instead of you having to employ a tester to look for bugs in your software, your users are reporting them to you for free.

Kate says, “I think far too often, companies say things like "that's a bug" or "I've captured that as a feature request", but they treat the customer reporting it almost like an irritation. Welcoming that feedback and then engaging with customers to get their ideas about what they'd like to see instead can be really effective.

“Sometimes it means you find out that it isn't a bug at all. Instead, they were misusing or misunderstanding the feature, and you really DO do the thing they want--just not under the menu heading that they expected it. That can make people really happy.”

Although this isn’t really a bug, it can have important consequences for your User Experience, or product documentation. It’s important to document all instances of customer confusion, and do something about it. 

Adding a feature request

It goes with the territory that customers will ask for features that you currently don’t provide. In this case, handling these enquiries properly is another way to turn lemons into lemonade.

Kate says, “Sometimes you don't do the thing they want, but in asking for more information about how they'd like it to behave, you get a lot more information about their use case and why/how they want/need something to work this way. 

“Even if you still can't do anything about it immediately, you can have a more nuanced, thoughtful conversation about what problem they're trying to solve – and you might be able to find a workaround. 

“At the end of the day, I think we all prefer paying people for things when they seem genuinely interested in helping us solve our problems.”

Documenting the problem

“Documenting the problem is also a huge opportunity for lemonade,” Marybeth says. “Whether you are documenting a bug, a feature request, or some other complaint, having a formal process to capture the data helps ensure that you have the data to prevent the same problems from happening over and over again.”

At KnowledgeOwl, we love using Asana to document and track all reported bugs and feature requests.

Marybeth continues, “What's even more powerful is, when you fix a bug or implement a feature/change based on a customer feedback, letting them know and thanking them again. It's very powerful to know that not only were your ideas heard but it affected actual change for the greater good. 

“It drives home that not only was the person listening to you and caring, but the whole company/organization did as well.

4. Thanking the customer

Just like the humble apology, genuinely thanking a customer can be an important way to turn lemons into lemonade.

Marybeth says, “I can't stress the power of thanking them enough – thanking them for letting you know about the issue. Thanking them for giving you the opportunity to make it right. Thanking them for helping make the software and experience better for others.”

This means literally using the words, “Thank you for X, we really appreciate X,” whether that’s in an email or over the phone. Make your appreciation explicit.

Kate says, “One of the techniques I know I use a lot without meaning to is to both apologize that someone's having that issue, but to seek their input on what they'd like to see done differently. Then I genuinely thank them/engage with them on what a good solution would be. 

“It's one of the things we prioritize when doing release notes and notifying customers that we shipped things. I always try to thank them, for reporting the issue and if it's been a while, for their patience while we found a solution. 

“People should feel that they were heard and taken seriously, and also should feel like their input really did help make the product better for everyone. Because it does.”

5. Decoding what the customer really wants

We’d all like to think we can express ourselves clearly, but very frequently we ask for one thing when in actual fact what we really want is something else. This is because we frame things based on our past experience, and we don’t know what we don’t know.

Marybeth says, “I think the most important thing in interacting with other humans is figuring out what they actually mean or want. People are bad at asking the right questions or explaining themselves.”

Learning to read between the lines is a skill that can’t really be taught – but the best customer support professionals practice it as second nature.

Kate says, “That's one thing that does differentiate customer service. Sure, I can document that you asked for a specific thing, but sometimes someone says they want X, when really that's the only feature name/behavior they can think of that would solve a particular problem they're facing. Maybe it's a feature another tool has, or it's just the way they thought to describe it.”

Finding creative ways to solve the problem

It’s about taking the time to ask the right questions, to help you decode what the customer really wants.

Kate says, “I can just document that request as-is, but it's more helpful if I ask follow-up questions to really understand the problem that they want the feature to solve. Sometimes we do have a workaround, but even in cases where we don't, we can do a much more detailed write-up of what problem they're trying to solve. 

“That lets us discuss the problem as a team, and sometimes our developers think up a totally different way to solve the underlying problem with an existing feature, and it becomes much easier for us to implement.”

This is an example of making lemonade as a team – working together to implement solutions that ultimately benefit the customer. 

“That's a win-win all-around,” says Kate. “The customer might get the thing they desperately need a lot faster, we don't have to feel bad that it's a "big" new feature we don't have time/resources to build, and everyone walks away feeling like a problem was solved well.”

Marybeth calls this type of lemonade “infusing it with ginger and adding a sprig of mint to the glass.”

Creating a customer service culture

Marybeth says, “Taking one step back, you can look at any customer request (phone call, email, tweet, etc) as a potential lemon and opportunity to be awesome. Very few people want to contact support, and if they are it means they ran into a question/problem/issue/request they couldn't solve on their own.”

You may be thinking, yeah yeah, all this is great, but we can’t do things this way at my company. 

Marybeth says, “Making it right or solving the problem seems to be a given, but not all companies empower their staff to have the ability to make things right or fix problems on their own. This often is what wows the customer: not needing to be escalated to a manager, not having to explain your story to multiple people, not needing to raise a fuss to get what you want or need.”

Even if you feel like the system isn’t stacked in your favor, there are still ways that you can make lemonade regardless.

Marybeth says, “There is a model that goes something like 5-90-5. 90% of people can give great customer service if you teach them how, and give them the tools and support. 5% can give great service no matter what. 5% are incapable of doing it. Most companies don't teach great service or empower it, so it's very rare.”

Be part of that 5% who always give great service. And learn from others who are also among the top 5% of customer support professionals.

Marybeth says, “It's figuring out how those 5% of great customer service people do it and building those habits. Because there are people that do it regardless of the company, situation, or rules.”

Final remarks

And that’s it! 

None of these ideas probably feel like rocket science, but action must be taken in the right spirit. View any customer situation as an opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade. Make helping customers fun.

Great documentation is an integral part of customer support lemonade. Take our knowledge base software KnowledgeOwl for a free spin. 


About the author
Catherine Heath
Catherine Heath

Community builder at KnowledgeOwl. Blogs. Copy. Documentation. Freelance content writer for creative and ethical companies. Contributing to open source and teaching technical tools.

Catherine blogs on her personal websites Away With Words and Awkward Writer. She runs the Write the Docs Northwest meetup group. 

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