Support Talks: Supporting Customers during Emotional Situations

Welcome to the next episode of support talks! We’ll talk about supporting customers, even if you’re not delivering the good news.

Support Agents are often the bearers of bad news. Learning how to deliver the message in a way to contain the situation and avoid frustrating the customer is a useful skill. In some industries, customer emotions are already high and this skill becomes critical to the ability to provide support.

This is certainly true when dealing with health issues. At the health insurance company Sana Benefits, Director of Member Operations, Hilary Dudek and her team deal with this every day. We recently sat down to chat about supporting customers in high emotional situations.

Where and when should support leaders consider customer emotions as part of their operating procedures?

Hilary: I think the emotions of the customer should always be taken into account. Emotions are another piece of information about the customer. A good support agent is going to consider their emotional state when assisting the customer.

However, just because we as leaders are considering the customer’s emotional state, doesn’t mean we should cater to every person who is upset. In our Service Level Agreement and Priorities framework, for example, we prioritize member issues based on whether they are experiencing a care blocker.

If the member cannot access needed care for some reason, this member will immediately be prioritized over someone who is not experiencing a care blocker. Even though the latter may be far more vocal about their problem.

“Emotions are a factor, but they cannot be the basis of how issues are prioritized.”nicereply blog

Why is recognizing the customer’s emotional state important to the overall CX?

Hilary: It is important to recognize the customer’s emotional state because this is how stellar customer experiences are crafted! By correctly reading the customer’s emotional indicators, a support agent is able to reflect back a response, interaction, or experience that is aligned with that emotional state.

What I’m describing is emotional intelligence, otherwise known as EQ. This EQ is exactly what is needed to pick up on social cues and understand the emotions, needs, and concerns of other people. The best support agents that I’ve worked with in my career all, without fail, have an extremely high emotional intelligence that enables them to excel at what they do.nicereply blog

What tips do you have when delivering difficult or emotional news to a customer?

Hilary: There are several ways you can approach difficult conversations:
At Sana, a Member Advocate should be authentic, and relay empathy in a manner that feels genuine to themselves.

They should use empathetic phrases to de-escalate the customer on the other end, such as:

  • I hear you.
  • I understand you’re feeling ABC.
  • This must be very difficult for you.
  • I’m so sorry to hear you’re going through XYZ.

Another tactic that also serves a useful purpose for our team is verifying customer information. Since Sana is a healthcare company, this means our Advocates need to verify the member’s identity in order to remain HIPAA compliant. These routine questions (date of birth, member ID, etc.) often distract and calm the member slightly.

Don’t say “I apologize” unless you or your company actually made an error that is impacting the customer. An apology is an admission of wrongdoing, so if nothing was done wrongfully, there is no reason to apologize.

Apologies can also come off as disingenuous. A customer support agent can easily say that they apologize without actually meaning it one bit. “I’m sorry”, on the other hand, conveys more empathy and sounds more heartfelt, and is typically more genuine.

An empathetic agent will be truly sorry that the customer is frustrated, upset, or experiencing a bad situation. It’s an expression of shared humanity.

“Stick to the facts, especially when delivering less than ideal news.”

The last thing you want is for the customer to be confused or retain some false hope. Be gentle but very direct and clear on what the situation or news is, so you can be sure the customer is fully understanding. Don’t overly sugarcoat it.

Focus on any silver linings and possible resolutions, once you’ve delivered the facts. Any positives should be mentioned and focused on, and if there are next steps on the agent’s end, they should communicate to the customer what those steps are, and the timeline for taking them.nicereply blog

What types of policies do you have if the emotions turn abusive or insulting towards the agent delivering the message?

Hilary: The Advocate always has the option to end the interaction altogether if the customer becomes abusive. Alternatively, they can pause it and transfer it to a team lead or manager. In both cases, they should concisely and firmly explain to the customer what is happening, and set the expectation for the next steps.

For example, “I would like to have a civil conversation with you about this bill, but we cannot do that while you are cursing at me. I’m going to hang up and send you an email with more information; please reply when you are calmer.” or “I’ve asked you twice now to stop swearing at me. I will not have this conversation with you while you continue to swear. I’ll transfer you to my manager now – please hold.” In either case, the Advocate’s manager should be informed of the situation so they can best support their Advocate and also potentially flag the customer’s behavior to their Customer Success Manager as well.

We also have a specific SOP for interacting with members who are experiencing a crisis, which includes de-escalating them while pointing them to 911 or the nearest ER. If the member will not voluntarily hang up to take immediate steps to protect themselves, the Advocate should kindly end the call while reiterating the two options (911 or ER).

Under no circumstances should a Member Advocate attempt to stay on the phone with the member during this crisis, for safety and compliance reasons.

These situations can drain not only the customer but the person delivering the message. How do you care for your support agents’ mental health when they experience compassion fatigue?

Hilary: Sana Benefits, as a whole, is one of the most supportive companies I have ever worked for. They place a heavy emphasis on utilizing our unlimited PTO and also embrace a strong work/life balance. This behavior is modeled by our CEO, Will Young, all the way down, and our support team is no exception.

Here are some of the things we do to care for our Advocates’ mental health:

  • Breaks are encouraged after an intense interaction with a member. If an Advocate needs to step away for 5-10 minutes to breathe and collect themselves, this is very much encouraged. They just need to pop it on their calendar before they go.
  • Take advantage of Sana’s unlimited PTO! Sana expects that each employee will take at least 15-20 days off each year.
  • Mental health days are an important part of our PTO package. Advocates are encouraged to schedule mental days off to recharge, ideally in advance. Many of the Advocates will schedule 1-2 days per month, every month, so they always know they have a long weekend or a couple of long weekends to look forward to. The goal is to use these days to maintain and recharge their mental health so that ideally they never reach the point of burnout.
  • Sana Benefits has numerous employee-run groups (ERG’s), including a mental wellness one. Many of our Advocates participate in these meetings, and a few of them even co-lead the entire ERG. The Mental Wellness ERG has a dedicated Slack channel as well where people can chat, uplift, and encourage each other.
  • On occasion, we incorporate mindfulness and meditation activities into our standing meetings. For example, we may do mindfulness or gratitude-focused ice breaker in our Support team huddle, or have one of our yogis lead a meditation activity in our monthly Operations meeting.
  • Respect the Advocate’s work/life balance: unlike other support teams I’ve worked on in the past, regular overtime is not something we endorse. Overall, Advocates should be shutting down their laptops at the end of their shift (even if it means turning their phones off 5 minutes early) and not thinking about work again until the next day. If they are on PTO, they are expected to log out of Slack and email and to not be heard from until they are back.

This is an expectation Sana holds for all their employees, but I think it’s especially crucial for any customer-facing teams to have that option to shut off work completely.


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Craig Stoss Craig Stoss

Craig has spent time in more than 30 countries working with support, development, and professional services teams building insight into Customer Experience and engagement. He is driven by building strong, effective support and services teams and ensuring his customers are successful. In his spare time Craig leads a local Support Thought Leadership group. He can be found on Twitter @StossInSupport

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