How to Talk to Your Agents about Negative Feedback

Negative feedback is a natural part of dealing with customers.

Regardless of how well trained your team is, how customer-centric your processes are, or how much you want to delight your customers, negative feedback is bound to arise.

Turning this feedback into growth and learning is what separates good customer service teams from great teams. Not only do customers feel heard when their opinions are acknowledged, but agents feel more engaged with their work and their performance improves over time.

“Feedback is about telling people what we think of their performance and how they should do it better” – Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, HBR.

In fact, 98% of employees “fail to be engaged when managers give little or no feedback,” so taking the time to talk with your agents about negative feedback is critical to a well-functioning team. Below, we cover six ways that managers can address feedback more effectively. 

Focus on the behavior not the person

When sharing feedback with an agent, how you say it matters just as much as anything else. Instead of getting personal and making judgements about the individual, simply state the behavior that you want to address, the outcome, and how you’d like the agent to change their behavior in the future.

Personal: “You are too blunt when answering customers. Be nicer.”

Behavior: “The customer felt this message was too direct, and like you didn’t empathize with them. In the future, what are some ways to create a connection between you and the customer?”

This re-positioning allows for the agent to distance themselves from the conversation, to review what happened, and take the feedback onboard, rather than becoming defensive.

Allow for self-reflection

“We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.” — John Dewey

Self-reflection is commonly considered the best way to learn and integrate new information. Instead of telling the agent what they could have done better, consider offering the agent time to self-reflect and come up with their own ideas.

Often when presented with a bad review, agents will quickly see where they went wrong. By coming to that conclusion themselves, they are more likely to remember it in the future.

Here are a few ways you can encourage agents to self-reflect and learn from their experiences:

  • Send an agenda before one-on-ones so agents can plan ahead.
  • Forward bad customer satisfaction ratings to agents for them to review.
  • Ask agents for their perspective on feedback before providing advice.
  • Include self-reviews on performance reviews.

NPS data

Focus on agent strengths

Receiving critical feedback lights up the sympathetic nervous system and puts the body into a fight or flight response – which is not the best headspace to be in when trying to learn. In fact, researchers found that the brain actively smothers new brain pathways from forming when in fight or flight. When the focus is instead placed on growth or agent strengths, new neural pathways are formed much quicker, which allows for more learning to occur.

To focus on strengths when talking about negative feedback, prompt the agent with things that work well for them:

  • I really like the way you lay out your emails. Is there a way email formatting could have improved this interaction?
  • You have so much personality in your conversations. How could that have changed the outcome of this conversation?
  • I know you’re really data-driven. How can we work through this feedback using data?

NPS data

Ask questions for more context

Helping people grow should be a conversation, not a download of information. This conversation can help cement learning opportunities and uncover more information.

When you want an agent to change a behavior, ask what lead them down that path in the first place. If you’ve hired the right people, your agents want to do a good job. They likely didn’t intend to do something wrong, so asking about their thought process can help you spot flaws in your training or workflows. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • “What other options did you consider?”
  • “What experiences did you have previously?”
  • “What additional information did you need?”
  • Is there anything that you felt you missed?”

Get the timing right

Timing definitely matters when it comes to discussing feedback. To optimize your discussions and make sure the agent is ready to learn, make time to talk:

  • Promptly. To ensure that the feedback stays relevant, it’s important to follow up as soon as possible. Regular one-on-one meetings can make sure incoming feedback is addressed regularly and promptly.
  • With time to spare. Constructive conversations shouldn’t be squeezed in at the end of the day or between two meetings. Make sure you have ample time to discuss the feedback and to let the agent digest it.
  • In private. Negative feedback should never be discussed in public. Whether it’s in a private chat, a one-on-one meeting, or just pulling an agent aside, taking the time to provide a safe space will result in a more productive conversation.

Throw away the feedback sandwich

Almost everyone has heard of the feedback sandwich, which is a way of cushioning negative feedback by adding a positive compliment on either side. In practice, that might sound something like this:

“Hey, I really liked how you gave that customer a friendly greeting. Next time, it would be great if you could ask the customer if they need the extended warranty. But overall, you did a great job at asking the customer about their needs.”

The feedback sandwich can be abused by not using specific positive statements and filling the sandwich with unhelpful feedback. That might sound something like this:

“Hey, great job. You gave the customer the wrong information. But again, you’re awesome.”

While this format might “soften the blow” of the negative feedback, it isn’t an effective way to help people learn. As Ashira Prossack notes in Forbes, people tend to remember the last thing they hear. When you provide three different points in your conversation, your agent won’t have a clear understanding of where they stand.

Instead of using the feedback sandwich, start by asking questions, then be direct about what the agent did as well as the result. Focus constructive feedback conversations on the behavior you want the agent to correct. Then, make sure to offer positive feedback often at other times.

Conclusion

Bad feedback is inevitable. Taking that bad feedback to your agents can feel uncomfortable, but it doesn’t have to be. By offering agents the opportunity to reflect, learn and focus on their strengths, you’ll develop a more engaged team. And because they’ve been involved in the process, agents will improve their customer service skills dramatically.


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Sarah Chambers Sarah Chambers

Sarah Chambers is a Customer Support Consultant and Content Creator from Vancouver, Canada. When she’s not arguing about customer service, she’s usually outdoors rock climbing or snowboarding. Follow her on Twitter @sarahleeyoga to keep up with her adventures.

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