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The Buffer Teammate Protection Pledge: How We Protect Our Team When A Customer Is Abusive

Jun 20, 2017 4 min readWorkplace of the future
Photo of Hailley Griffis
Hailley Griffis

Head of Communications & Content @ Buffer

Our whole team engages with many people online every day across various platforms. Most of these experiences are happy, positive, thought-provoking, and often quite funny. We have some truly wonderful Buffer customers, and getting their messages throughout the day makes the whole team smile.

Sometimes though, things are less happy and positive, and more angry and negative, like with online hate or when a customer might become abusive towards a Buffer teammate.

When those situations arise, we never want a Buffer teammate to feel unsafe at work. Ever.

Recently inspired by this HelpScout post on abusive customers, one of our Happiness team leads, Ross, put together this Teammate Protection Pledge. This is our guide to the whole team on how to handle negative interactions and how to tell when it’s time to end the relationship with a customer.

We’d love to share this with you as an example of how we’re dealing with the rare moments when a customer may turn abusive and online hate. Here’s what Ross shared with the whole Buffer team.

The Teammate Protection Pledge

As a Bufferoo, you’ll get the privilege of building relationships with thousands of customers. Hopefully most of these will be enriching, positive experiences. Every once in a while, an interaction might take a negative turn. It could be that our product has led to intense frustration or that the customer is just having an off day. In rarer cases, things may turn abusive or threatening. If things do turn abusive, we never want a Buffer teammate to feel unsafe.

I’d love to share a new teammate protection pledge, aimed at giving you the confidence to end Buffer’s relationship with a customer when it’s clear that the wellness or safety of our team is at stake. If you encounter any of the following three elements, you are empowered to initiate a process to part ways with a customer:

1. Any form of racist, sexist, transphobic, ableist, or otherwise discriminatory, derogatory or harassing language. Simply put, you should never feel unsafe at Buffer, no questions asked.

2. Threats, either personal or professional. This includes threats to reveal information about a Buffer teammate, threats of personal or professional blackmail, and so on.

3. A history of negative behavior with no sign of improvement or change. This could be a long pattern of berating our company or team, a history of aggressively demanding refunds, etc. Context is important here, and this one will be the trickiest to gauge.

When these situations come up, if it feels like a clear and strong example of abuse, we trust you to make the right call! If it feels like a complicated decision, getting advice from a teammate or your lead may be best.

If you do encounter a situation where it would be best to end things with the customer, you are welcome to initiate that process yourself, *or pass it off to a teammate if you’re uncomfortable being the one to end things. We don’t want anyone to feel pressured to continue correspondence after being the recipient of abusive behavior, so we encourage you to lean on your team here.

If you’re the one to end things, here are a few thoughts on how to approach it:

1. Be direct with the customer, sharing examples of why we made the decision if possible. It’s absolutely appropriate to use a more factual tone and steer away from opening up an ongoing conversation. Do your best to let the customer save face as much as possible, without obfuscating why we are ending things.

2. If on a paid plan, refund the customer more than might be warranted. Here’s a helpful excerpt from a Help Scout blog:

[When breaking up with a customer], we laid it out as matter-of-factly as we possibly could…and we quoted incidents directly back at him. We calmly explained why we were making this decision, wished him luck, and — this is important — refunded him six months of payments. Why did we refund him? Because giving the outgoing customer something to part with defuses the situation….We didn’t ask if he wanted the refund, we just gave it to him, said goodbye, and moved on. In the end, he thanked us and we haven’t heard from him since.

For refunds, let’s reimburse two months of payments anytime we need to suspend an account for abuse. If it feels like a unique circumstance, feel free to get advice from your lead.

3. To finalize things, you can cancel the customer’s subscription, suspend the account, and tag the email or tweet as ‘suspended’ for tracking. If we later discover that the customer has started a new account, please suspend/refund again immediately. There is no need to re-engage in communication.

Thankfully, the moments where this comes up are few and far between. I hope this pledge empowers our team to protect themselves and each other when it’s necessary. At the same time, I’m excited for us to continue surprising and delighting in difficult situations, bringing light into dark moments, and choosing empathy even when it’s hard. That’s what makes Buffer special, and I’m so very proud to be here with all of you ❤

Who is this for?

This covers the whole Buffer team.

Initially, this was focused on our customer happiness team as they engage with customers the most often. Other teams, like marketing, often engage with customers too, and our engineers are kind enough to jump into our customer support queue to help out with tickets quite often.

We’re very grateful that these conversations don’t come up too often, but when they do, we want our team to feel safe and empowered to take action.

Over To You

As always, we’d absolutely love to hear from you and know what your thoughts are on this!

  • How do you deal with online hate at work or in your personal life?
  • Does your company have a policy for online hate or an abusive customer?
  • Did we miss anything in this protection pledge? What would you change?
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