The Definitive Guide to Managing Tough Customer Situations

There are tons. And tons. And tons of resources out there about how to write great marketing and sales emails. But there aren’t a lot of resources to help guide writing emails to angry customers.

No one wants to proactively think about dealing with an angry customer email. Email writing is a skill. It’s an art. It’s something that’s hard to get right, because success is hard to define and super subjective.

But I have a little secret. I love writing customer emails. I love digging into a problematic situation, and figuring out how to break it down to its smallest parts and then put everything back together in a way that helps move everything forward. As bizarre as it sounds, it’s become one of my specialties. And I want to share everything I’ve learned with you. 

Over the past 10+ years, I’ve served in leadership and advisory positions for CX teams and have personally handled hundreds of high-value client relationships that for one reason or another have gone awry. And the stakes are always high. You never want to damage a customer relationship when there’s a chance you can pull them back from the brink.

But I know how hard it is to approach customer relationship management, and specifically, how to ensure you’re communicating empathy and candor in your customer emails. 

The Definitive Guide to Managing Tough Customer Situations (1)

I’ve compiled my favorite tips and best practices that I’ve cultivated throughout the years and am sharing the definitive guide to managing heated customer emails.

Start here:
Lead with the pairing of empathy and candor

Always always always lead with empathy. No matter what the situation, no matter how crazy it might be, there is a reason your customer is upset, and you need to find a way to empathize with them (even if you don’t understand it). But you also need to be honest. Don’t string your customers along. If they’re asking for something that can’t be done, tell them plainly. You have the ability to establish an equal relationship, even in a heated situation, by pointing out from the beginning that you will commit to being candid and honest with them about what is and isn’t possible.

Example: I understand that XX can be frustrating, and I’m so sorry this has been your experience. I’ve been informed about this situation, and I have some details and next steps below. I want to be candid with you about what is and isn’t possible moving forward so we can find the best path from here. 

Use email length intentionally

In most cases, we always aim to keep our emails short and sweet. This is one exception. Sometimes, including a lot of substantial content in an email can help convey that you’re taking the situation very seriously. A customer seeing a lengthy email in response to a heated situation can help them understand that you’re taking it seriously, and you’ve invested time in understanding their issue. More often than not, people just want to be heard and have their feelings validated. Don’t skimp on empathizing with their situation, and proving that you understand where they’re coming from. Substantive emails can go a long way here.

Don't hestitate to: 
Own your mistakes

Look, no company or product is perfect. If any part of the situation was caused (knowingly or not) by your company, own up to the mistake. Some companies go to great lengths to never apologize, and I just don’t understand why. Apologizing won’t lose you the upper hand, or make you come across as weak. It will show humility and vulnerability in a situation where responsibility needs to be taken. Even if you can’t solve the problem, an apology is often all customers need to ease the tension of an uncomfortable situation. 

Example: It is never my intention for one of our customers to have such a challenging experience, and I’m deeply sorry for any inconvenience this has caused.

Don't forget to:
Anticipate negotiation

It’s just good practice to assume that, if a customer has an issue, they’ll ask for some type of compensation. When you’re crafting an email to a customer, it’s a sign of good faith if you provide an entry-point to that potential negotiation. This helps in a few ways. 

First, this enables you to set the boundaries around what’s feasible, not the customer (who might start with one free year of service). You can decide what you think seems fair, and it doesn’t have to be monetary. Maybe it’s access to a bonus feature, a personal product training session, free resources or other support that may address their initial issue. 

Second, by proactively offering something, you’re signaling to clients that you want to do right by them. Your customers might still be upset, but I guarantee the situation will begin to diffuse if you are the first to put some skin in the game, and provide some type of offer to help make it right. 

Example: I know this may not be able to make up for the XX issue, but I would like to offer you one free month of service and a 30-minute training session with our Senior Customer Success Manager to help ensure you can move forward and get the best use out of the product. 

Provide the next step

If you have a clear cut solution to solve all the problems, by all means LEAD WITH THAT! But chances are, the path forward may not be totally clear. The worst thing you can do is leave the situation open-ended.

No matter what the issue is, make sure you always provide some type of next step. Don’t overpromise- but indicate what can be done next to make every effort to amend the situation. And if all efforts have been exhausted, and there is nothing further to be done, name that clearly and without ambiguity. It will feel hard. You might risk losing the customer. But you'll be at even more risk if you leave a heated situation open ended. No one likes to be strung along. Make sure you always provide a clear next step; even if that’s communicating that you’ve done all you can, and need to close out the issue.

Example: At this point, we have done X, Y and Z to make things right, and unfortunately we have exhausted all efforts to rectify the situation. I’m sorry for the inconvenience this has caused, and I wish there was a path to resolution, but at this point, our next step is to close out this issue.

Use this as a teaching opportunity

As a CX professional, there is a lot that’s unpredictable. But one thing you can always anticipate is having to deal with an angry customer. So use every heated situation as a learning opportunity for your team. When one of your team members reaches out and asks for help, sit down with them and ask them what they think the best path forward is. Then, work with them to craft a response. Have them take a stab at writing a first draft “from” you, and then review it together and explain to them any tweaks or adjustments you make. This not only empowers them to advise you on the best path forward, it also gives you the opportunity to coach them experientially on a situation they will likely be responsible for managing down the line.


At the end of the day, remember- the customer is NOT always right. But their feelings are always valid. If you lean in with empathy and candor, and communicate effectively, you have a strong chance of making the customer feel better about the situation. Heck, you might even develop a stronger relationship out of it!

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About Annie And Kristin of Decoded Strategies
Decoded Strategies

A Fresh Perspective

Brands with incredible products get beat by the competition every day. Confusing messaging will cost you on every critical front of your business. Decoded Strategies delivers messing strategy & marketing services to communicate about your business in the way your audience actually wants to hear it.