I've been answering customer service emails since they were customer service letters —I started in my first office job, because it was the responsibility of the newest hire, and have continued ever since then because I think it's one of the most important parts of any product-focused job.

It's easy to answer the emails that praise your product, have interesting feature suggestions, or that ask simple technical or "how do I?" questions. But how do you maintain your composure in the face of email from upset, irate, or unreasonable customers? And how do you convert them from mad to glad?

Here are five tips you might find helpful if you, too, answer any red-flagged email directed to 'help@', 'support@', 'feedback@', or 'team@'.

  1. Be thankful. The person writing to you, no matter how indignant their tone, incoherent their points, or incessant in their demands, is offering you a fantastic opportunity: to understand pain points for your user. They didn't have to send you anything —they could have sent an angry Tweet, used up their weekly quota of exclamation points on Facebook, or just slagged you off to all their IRL friends. By letting you know there's a problem, they're doing you a favor. Before you reply to ANY of their points, thank them for taking the time to email you. (I like to offer to send stickers or even a t-shirt as a thank you for finding bugs!)

  2. I'm not much for scripture, but there's a line from Proverbs that I'm pretty sure was intended for people answering customer service email: "A soft answer turns away wrath." (Proverbs 15:1, if you're curious.) Most people know enough NOT to reply angrily to an angry email (although you'd be surprised ...) but it's almost as bad to evade criticism with mealymouthed "I'm sorry if you were upset"-type responses. Be soft, not squirmy. Take the blame. Take the blame in THE FIRST PERSON. User can't find a link? "I'm sorry our link was hard to find." There's an error on your site? "You're right, we're wrong!"

    Do not underestimate how powerful actually writing the direct words "You are right, and we are wrong" can be when sent to someone who is much more accustomed to hearing evasions. (Then thank them again.)

  3. Be up-front about what you can and can't do. It's okay to say "You're right, that's a bug, and an annoying one. Unfortunately, we won't be able to get that fixed until (insert date here)." If you don't have a date, let them know when you might have one. "We're looking at fixes for the next quarter, if you like I can email you again when I have a firmer date." If at all possible, keep a list of people to follow up with when a bug is fixed. "Just wanted to let you know that we fixed that bug you reported ..."

    If something relies on a third-party service, don't just throw them under the bus ("that's a problem with X, sorry"). Instead, offer to reach out to that third party and discover when they might be updating, and send that information back to the customer.

  4. Solve the problem. This doesn't mean you have to fix everything! This means solve the user‘s problem. For instance, the Wordnik Word of the Day sends out deliberately obscure and unusual words—because we have so many more words than other dictionaries, we like to display the curiosities in our collection. (We like to say that our words of the day are for decorative purposes only!) Sometimes users write to us and complain that they can't use our words in their everyday lives ... and that's true! So we point them to other word-of-the-day email lists that take a more pragmatic approach, so we can solve their problem without changing the essential nature of our product. (And they often remain subscribers to our "ornamental" words after subscribing to the other lists.)

    Take the attitude that there is no such thing as "Not Our Problem". Many word game apps embed the Wordnik site in their games for dictionary lookup ... meaning that we are frequently emailed about problems of gameplay or in-app purchase problems, because our support email address is easier to find than the developer's! We regularly hunt down developers and forward those emails. (Those developers should be using our API anyway ...)

  5. Say no. It can be painful to say no to a potential customer, but if what is being requested is outside the bounds of what your product can or should do, you owe it to both yourself and the customer not to engage in a long email back-and-forth about something that will never happen. (To use another example from the Wordnik Word of the Day list: one reader complained that our etymologies don't go into enough depth, and often compress the path a word took into English into fewer steps. So we explained why we use simple etymologies, and why we won't be changing our process to use more elaborate ones.)

And a bonus tip: don't be afraid of using adverbs and exclamation points! (Or even emoticons and emoji.) We often "misinterpret positive e-mail messages as more neutral, and neutral ones as more negative, than the sender intended". So what sounds over-the-top to you will almost certainly just read as pleasantly enthusiastic to your recipient.

Disagree with these points? Send me an email. I'll be sure to reply!

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