How to Deal with Negative Customer Feedback When It Feels Personal


Sure, I was only serving coffee. But it was my first day and I felt like somebody had handed me the nuclear launch codes.

I was nervous to start with – the good kind. You know, where colors seem brighter and you’re full of energy? About halfway through the day,  still in my eagerness, I put down a cup too fast. Some coffee went over the edge and into the saucer.

The cup’s intended gave me a look – just a single look – and then returned to her conversation.

But that look was so loaded with meaning, it could have written a book.

My young mind wasn’t equipped to handle it. It struck me to my core and knocked me off kilter. I stumbled onwards, but carried on making more mistakes.

The floor manager gave me a pep talk: “Don’t worry, she’s a horrible person. Don’t let her get to you.”

Though the customer had only needed one look to get under my skin, the floor manager’s words rolled right off me. My funk stayed and my first day turned into a disaster.

At the time, it felt like from that look my bad day was destiny. Now I know different.

  1. The effect of that look and those words had on me was down to my ‘explanatory style’.
  2. We can influence our own and other’s explanatory styles if we know what to do.

Let’s explore both of those ideas.

What is this thing called ‘Explanatory Style’?

Explanatory Style was first conceived by the psychologist Martin Seligman in the 80s. In a nutshell, it is how you explain and interpret the good and bad things that happen to you.

It has three underlying factors:

  • Personalization – was I responsible for this event or was the cause external, like luck?
  • Permanence – how long will the effect and the fallout last?
  • Pervasiveness – the event’s importance, and does it have a big impact?

Taken together they either give you an optimistic or pessimistic explanatory style.

Explanatory style in practice

So, say you get an angry email from a customer, like this one which Kayako actually received:


Pessimistic explanatory style vs optimistic explanatory style

With a truly pessimistic explanatory style you’d interpret this negatively. So you’d believe it was your fault, the customer was lost forever, nobody was going to forget it, and it would even affect your personal life.

If you have an optimistic explanatory style you’d interpret things differently. You might think the customer was having a bad day, that you could convince them to stay or at least mollify their anger, and that your home life will remain unaffected.

Interestingly, the effects reverse for positive events. Say you got an email of praise. If you were an optimist you’d take credit and believe it said something about your personality. If you were a pessimist however, you’d believe it was an isolated incident without a wider significance.

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What the research says

A lot of research has found support for explanatory style. For example, people with a pessimistic explanatory style are more likely to suffer from depression and physical illness. Those with a more optimistic style, in the meantime, are often more successful. Optimistic students do better in law school, while optimistic professional athletes are more resilient after sports failure.

Similarly, explanatory style can be beneficial in careers with a lot of negative feedback.

Boost employee retention

Take the story of MetLife. Their insurance salesforce was experiencing an incredibly high turnover rate due to the high rate of rejection that came with the job.

Some people were managing, but for most it was too much. Half of new hires quit in the first year. Turnover is expensive and the company was at a loss (no pun intended). Why were some people quitting while others stayed? How could they predict who would do what?

Martin Seligman found the predictor was explanatory style:

  • Those with a more optimistic style were sticking around twice as long.
  • Even better, they sold on average 37% more insurance. And this increased to an astounding 88% when compared to their most pessimistic peers.

MetLife was so impressed they changed their hiring process to include people’s explanatory style.

Sounds like a pretty useful skill to have for people who deal with a lot of negative feedback, right?

So let’s move on to that second point. How can you change people’s explanatory style to better deal with negative feedback?

Exploring and changing your team’s explanatory style

Step one is to assess what style somebody uses. For that we need to go back those three dimensions of personalization, permanence, and pervasiveness. With them, you can explore where the problem lies and don’t end up barking up the wrong tree.

Take that canned-response email mentioned above. Receiving an email like that can feel like getting gut punched (you can take my word for that). If that was the case for one of your reps – let’s call her Susan – you wouldn’t just want to figure out if she’d been affected but how.

You could use questions like these:

  • Personalization: Do you think it’s your fault that you got this response, or was it something else? Do you feel you write emails that people might feel is canned?
  • Permanence: What do you think the consequences of the email will be for you and the company? Can the customer’s anger be mollified? If not, will we get over their loss quickly or not?
  • Pervasiveness: Do you think this will affect the company and your career? What about life in general?
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If Susan felt it was down to her writing style, you could make her think of examples of emails she wrote that people really appreciated. If she instead felt that this angry customer was never coming back and that was a big lost opportunity for the company, you’d need a different approach.

Perhaps you could say it was only a trial and with that attitude they’d probably not have taken the paid product anyway.

In this way, you can quickly move to the heart of the problem. Say you realize Susan didn’t take it personal, but was worried she’d get fired. Then you could explain that that wasn’t going to happen. That would be more effective than tackling a non-existent problem that you thought she had.


Of course, managers can’t go through this exercise all day long. That’s just too time-consuming. Fortunately, you don’t need to. Instead teach them the ABCD method:

  • Adversity. This is the adverse event. It happened. The customer sent the angry email. It can’t be changed.
  • Belief. This is how you believe the adversity will influence your life. Do you see a negative event as devastating? Do you believe you might get fired or the company might go bankrupt? Or do you instead see it as an opportunity? Like perhaps we can use this to write a better welcome email?
  • Consequences. If you believe an event has serious repercussions you might very well create a self-fulfilling prophecy, where you create that reality. For example, perhaps your emails suddenly get an undertone that is off-putting to customers.
  • Disputation. But you can argue with these beliefs and nudge yourself onto a different path. Is that email really the end of your career? Or do all customer service reps get angry emails all the time?


Point D is where you create change, so let’s focus there. The goal is to dispute held beliefs by examining them and seeing if they hold up.

  • Is the belief based on sound reasoning or can you poke holes in it? A hatred of canned emails isn’t a common thing. It might just be a pet peeve of this customer.
  • Are there alternative ways to interpret events? Maybe the customer was having a bad day.
  • Is it a logical argument or just an emotional one and are you jumping to conclusions? It is just a trial. Though we lost a potential customer, it wasn’t in the bag yet.
  • Would you accept such an argument if somebody else proposed it? If Billy told me his day was ruined because he got this email, would I say he’s being dramatic?
  • How can you deal with the fallout in a positive and more constructive manner? What’s the opportunity here? Let’s think about writing a new email or setting up a system where customers that reported a problem don’t get an email like this.

Here too you can use those three underlying factors.

  1. Do you feel this is who you are?
  2. Can you come up with counter examples where that is not the case?
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Similarly, try to remember things are rarely as bad as they first appear and that the consequences won’t last half as long as you think they will. Also, remember we’re only the center of our own universe. Others don’t pay us half as much attention as we think they do (something called the Spotlight Effect).

Some things to note

  1. We want people to learn to do this for themselves. If somebody else does it, we run the risk of the person with the pessimistic explanatory style just complains while the other person refutes their complaints. That isn’t changing somebody’s explanatory style. That’s a pep talk.
  2. We’re not trying to suppress negative emotions. They’re an important part of our mental wellbeing. Instead, you should tackle the underlying reason for that emotion (e.g. you think the foul-mouthed customer will have far more impact than they really will).

Make explanatory style part of your hiring process

If people practice their ABCDs enough they’ll internalize them and nudge their styles towards optimism. Of course, there is one more way to change the explanatory style of your customer service team. It isn’t so much a nudge as a complete makeover.

Remember how Metlife made explanatory style part of their hiring process? If your team has to deal with a lot of negative feedback, why not do the same? Nudging people’s explanatory styles is like bailing water out of a leaky ship. It works, but it’s labor intensive. Hiring people who have a naturally optimistic explanatory style, however, will plug the holes.

This is because more optimistic people boost the explanatory style of the entire team, allowing everybody to rebound faster.

I know all about this. At the end of my first day in that cafe I was miserable. The team I’d worked with wouldn’t let me leave that way, though. Instead, they told me their own first-day horror stories, made me laugh, and helped me relativize. And so, instead of quitting – like I’d considered  – I came back the next day, as well as the weeks, months and years that followed.

That’s the power of a positive team explanatory style. Of course, that one came about by largely accident as the floor manager hadn’t known about it. Now, you do. So, you can make sure that an optimistic explanatory style is part of your team’s design.

What you should do now

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