How to Give Feedback to a Defensive Employee

The feedback session wasn't going well.

A contact center supervisor was reviewing a call with an agent where the agent's lack of friendliness seemed obvious. She had replied to the customer's questions in a monotone voice with short, clipped responses, and didn't acknowledge the customer's frustration.

The agent's response was to the supervisor's coaching was to flatly disagree. "Well," said the agent, "that's friendly for me."

Customer service leaders often face this dilemma. How do you get employees to embrace feedback, when they don't agree their performance needs to improve? 

I was lucky to have a mentor show me a technique that works.

 A defensive employee argues with his boss.

Step 1: Identify Observable Behavior

One of the challenges faced by the supervisor is that friendliness is surprisingly difficult to define. You might know friendliness when you see it, but describing it isn't so easy. 

The supervisor couldn't explain what exactly the employee was doing wrong or what specifically she needed to do to improve. "You weren't friendly," was ultimately a subjective assessment.

Leaders often struggle getting employees onboard with murky concepts like friendliness.

My boss, Debbi, was a mentor to me when I supervised a contact center training department many years ago. She taught me to overcome this challenge by focusing on observable behavior. These are behaviors you can actually see, rather than inferences.

For example, let's go back to friendliness. What specific behaviors did the agent display that led the supervisor to conclude the agent wasn't being friendly?

  • Monotone voice

  • Short, clipped responses

  • Did not acknowledge the customer's frustration

So what does friendly look like? Here's an experiment you can try. Observe an employee you know is being friendly. Try to identify the specific behaviors they display that tell you they are friendly.

You can see an example in this short video. Skip ahead if you’d like to 1:20 to see a poor example and then a good example at 1:58.

Step 2: Check Your Intent

Your intent in a feedback conversation is critical to getting that surly employee onboard.

The supervisor's intent with the unfriendly contact center agent was to get the employee to acknowledge she hadn't been friendly. Ultimately, the supervisor hoped the agent would accept being marked down on the quality monitoring form that was used to evaluate agent performance.

That feels pretty adversarial. And right or wrong, it's human nature to get defensive when confronted by an adversary.

I once made the mistake of confronting an employee about her bad attitude. She immediately became defensive and it didn't go well. That's because my intent was to get her to accept that she had a bad attitude.

My mentor, Debbi, gave me some advice that helped me change my intent with this employee. I started my next meeting with the employee by explaining that five different people had complained about working with her, and I wanted to work together to help her change that perception.

This time, I didn't try to get my employee to admit she was wrong. We focused instead on identifying specific behaviors she needed to display to convince colleagues she didn't have a bad attitude. It was still a difficult conversation, but we were now on the same side.

The next time you want to give an employee feedback, make sure your intent is to help them deliver a great performance the next time.

Step 3: Provide a Good Example

People can still disagree despite the best of intentions and seemingly clear, observable behavior. This makes it important to have an example of what good performance looks like.

There are a few ways you can do this.

One way is to share a visual. For instance, a chain of pizza restaurants has a poster showing two employees standing side-by-side. One is wearing their uniform correctly, while the other is not. This makes it easier to see what a "good" uniform presentation should look like.

Supervisors can also demonstrate the expected behavior. A hospitality manager who wanted his employees to give friendly greetings had employees observe him greet several guests.

Still another approach is to use your employee's past performance as a model. The contact center supervisor could have found a previous call where the agent was friendly, and played them for the agent back-to-back so she would better understand the difference between the two.

Debbi consistently coached me to set a positive example for my employees. So when I made suggestions to help an employee convince colleagues she didn’t have a “bad attitude,” I could show her examples of what I was looking for.

Take Action

Okay, here's the caveat.

These steps won't work 100 percent of the time. Some employees just aren't open to feedback, no matter how you approach them. In those cases, a poor performer should be told to improve or move on to another position.

Yet I've found that most employees will improve if you approach them the right way. My “bad attitude” employee made the adjustments she needed to make and completely changed how her colleagues perceived her. I made sure to acknowledge her progress and continued to communicate that I was on her side.

Lessons From the Overlook: The Power of Checklists

Note: Lessons from The Overlook is a monthly update on lessons learned from owning a vacation rental property in the Southern California mountain town of Idyllwild. It's a hands-on opportunity to apply some of the techniques I advise my clients to use. You can find past updates here.

I went to change the air filter on the heater while visiting The Overlook recently. 

Normally, there's an extra filter on hand to make this an easy chore, but I discovered I hadn't re-ordered filters the last time I'd used one. So I drove into town to buy one, but the size I needed was out of stock at both hardware stores in Idyllwild.

(Side note, I'm a big fan of Idyllwild's True Value, Forest Lumber. They pack a lot of merchandise into a small store, and the friendly staff are always very helpful.)

In the end I had to order a new filter online and have it delivered to our property manager for installation later that week. 

Changing the air filter was a minor hassle this time. It was also a terrific reminder that I had fallen out of habit of doing something very important: using a checklist.

Here's how a checklist is (usually) a timesaver at The Overlook, and why you should be using them, too.

 An inspection revealed a pipe under the spa deck was missing some insulation. We asked our property manager to have it fixed before it caused any real problems.

An inspection revealed a pipe under the spa deck was missing some insulation. We asked our property manager to have it fixed before it caused any real problems.

Using a PM Checklist

When my wife, Sally, and I first bought The Overlook in October 2016, we created a preventative maintenance (PM) checklist. 

Our plan was to use the checklist when inspecting the cabin on our regular visits. It would help us remember what to inspect while identifying some maintenance items that had to be done on occasion. We've updated the checklist as we've discovered new requirements or added a new feature, like a game room.

We've found the checklist to be extremely useful. 

There's been some minor maintenance to be done each time we've visited the cabin, which is usually once every six weeks. Glasses are missing, lightbulbs are burned out, guests leave personal items in drawers, furniture has been moved, you name it.

The PM checklist also contains a lot of helpful reminders, such as pumping the septic tank, trimming trees, and checking our propane consumption. We also use it to identify when to re-order supplies such as spare glasses, dishes, lightbulbs, and cleaning supplies.

Forming a Bad Habit

We've strayed away from using the checklist during the past few months. The excuse was busyness.

A day trip to the cabin in September was a whirlwind of chores. We returned in October, but storm knocked the power out and put a damper on our plans. Another trip the first weekend in December was nice, but there was also a long list of chores that needed to be done.

In hindsight, these were precisely the times when a checklist would have been handy. It would have helped me remember to order new air filters for our heater or inspect the piping under the spa deck (see photo). I allowed myself to get so busy focusing on whatever task was right in front of me that I neglected to follow our own procedure.

Fortunately, the only fallout was a little wasted time from not having replacement air filters on hand. I know it could have been worse, such as a frozen pipe!

We'll definitely be using our PM checklist on the next visit.

Build Your Own Operations Checklist

A checklist is great to have if there's something you want people to inspect or a list of chores you want people to do on a regular basis.

  • Retail shops use them for opening and closing the store.

  • Contact centers use them when evaluating phone calls.

  • A home repair technician uses them to inventory parts on the truck.

  • A mechanic uses them when inspecting your vehicle.

  • Restaurants use them for cleaning the kitchen.

There are probably multiple ways to build a PM checklist. Here's how we built ours.

  1. Start with an initial walk-through.

  2. Capture any items to add to your checklist.

  3. For the first few times you use it, identify any needed adjustments.

  4. Review and update the checklist periodically, at least once per year.

Another consideration is how people will access the checklist. This should be a function of who is using it, when they're using it, and where they're using it.

For example, you've probably seen an inspection checklist posted in a public restroom. This makes it very easy for the janitorial crew to identify what needs to be cleaned or inspected, and mark down the work that has been done.

We keep our PM checklist on a Google Doc, so it's easy for either of us to pull it up on an iPad and update it as we walk around the house. 

A Final Reminder

Our experience taught us that it's easy to use busyness as an excuse to stop doing things the right way. In the long run, not using the checklist cost us more time than it saved.

Four Corporate Customer Service Blogs Actually Worth Reading

Many companies that sell a product or service to customer service teams have a corporate blog. It's part of a content marketing strategy that brings visitors to the company website, establishes some brand awareness, and hopefully generates sales.

A lot of those blogs are hard to read.

They're overly self-promotional. Content is generic and written with no real viewpoint. Some become a dumping ground for poorly curated guest posts.

A few corporate blogs stand out from the crowd. They pair excellent writing with real advice that's both thought-provoking and actionable.

Here are four corporate customer service blogs I consistently read. Full disclosure: I know people at each of these companies. I also respect the work they do and really do subscribe to their blogs.

 Professional reading a blog on a tablet while drinking a cup of coffee.


The HelpScout blog has a nice mix of product how-tos, insights from real customer service leaders, and posts that address topical issues such as working with remote teams. What I like about this blog is the articles are well-written and often contain a lot of helpful examples. For instance, a recent post about making content more inclusive was really thought-provoking.


This is what you get when you mix real journalists with industry thought leaders and consciously create distance between the blog and the corporate agenda. Though run by Zendesk, Relate almost feels like a separate entity. Heck, Zendesk even has a separate Zendesk blog. Relate is packed with highly relevant topics that don't get enough attention, such as an interview with Jenny Dempsey about self-care in customer service or this post on how to be a good Airbnb guest.


Posts on the FCR blog are primarily written by FCR's Director of Customer Experience, Jeremy Watkin. Since FCR is an outsourced contact center, Jeremy gets to work with a wide variety of client organizations, and he shares many of those insights in his practical, often folksy posts. A good example is this post about creating a voice and style guide for your customer service team.


Data nerds rejoice! The Thematic blog weaves compelling data and solid storytelling to share some unexpected conclusions. For instance, a recent post on using customer feedback to prevent churn showed how one Thematic client was getting most of its customer churn from happy customers. There's a huge lesson there about not taking your best customers for granted.

What Blogs Are You Reading?

These are all blogs I subscribe to and actually read, but it's by no means an exhaustive list. Please leave a comment or drop me a line and let me know which corporate customer service blogs you read on a regular basis!

The Hidden Danger of Murky Buzzwords

Years ago, a company hired me to conduct customer service training that showed employees how to align their service with the company's corporate values. 

One of those values was integrity. 

I interviewed several employees and managers to prepare for the training. None of them explained integrity the same way. Some employees were aware it was a value, but hadn't given it any thought. 

"It's just some corporate thing," explained several people I talked to.

To put some context in place, integrity has been a buzzword for corporate values statements for some time. A 2004 study by Booz Allen and the Aspen Institute found that 90 percent of corporate values statements listed ethics or integrity. Even Enron, the company made famous for a massive accounting scandal that sent executives to prison, listed integrity among its core values in the company's 2000 annual report.

Herein lies the challenge for customer service leaders. So many buzzwords that guide our decision-making are murky. 

 Guy scratching his head in confusion.

Common Murky Buzzwords

Here's an experiment you can try. Share the following terms with your leadership team. Ask each person to write down a brief definition of each one. Then compare what people wrote.

  • Employee Engagement

  • Customer Success

  • Customer Experience

  • Leadership

  • Empowerment

My guess is you'll get a lot of great definitions, but they'll all be slightly different. 

This creates a real challenge. For instance, most leaders I speak with agree that employee engagement is important. Yet they have wildly different ideas of what it really means. It's pretty hard to improve something if we don't agree on what we're trying to improve.

I once sat in on a conversation between an IT director and the two managers that reported to him. He was frustrated with the department's performance, but was having a difficult time articulating what he felt was going wrong and what needed to improve. 

Finally, the director blurted out, "You need to be more managerial, or... you're fired!"

Nobody in the room, including the IT director, had any idea what "be more managerial" meant or how one could go about doing it. 

You can't improve something if you don't define it.

Sample Definitions

I don't want to leave you high and dry, so here are some sample definitions for the five terms I shared above. 

Keep in mind these aren't the only definitions. You're free to find another source or even come up with your own. What's important is you establish a common frame of reference with the leaders and employees in your organization.

Employee Engagement: An engaged employee is deliberately contributing to organizational success. (source: Jeff Toister)

Customer Success: An organizational function that helps customers get maximum value out of a product or service. (source: Hubspot)

Customer Experience: The sum of all the interactions that a customer has with an organization over the life of the “relationship” with that company… and, especially, the feelings, emotions, and perceptions the customer has about those interactions. (source: Annette Franz)

Leadership: A leader is someone who inspires people to take action. Leadership is the skillset or tools they use to do so. (source: Grace Judson)

Empowerment: a process of enabling employees to deliver outstanding service to their customers. (source: Jeff Toister)

The Power of a Common Frame of Reference

If you've read this blog before, you may know I'm a proponent of companies adopting a unique customer service vision.

This is a shared definition of outstanding customer service that gets everyone on the same page. It binds the group with a common purpose, and establishes a common frame of reference when it comes to delivering great service.

Some companies, like the client I mentioned at the start of this post, choose to use corporate values as the customer service vision. That's fine, so long as everyone has a shared understanding of what they meant.

Which brings us back to integrity. 

Through a series of workshops, my client's employees decided that "integrity" should mean doing the right thing for the customer by trying to be the customer's advocate. Together, we brainstormed real workplace stories that were examples of serving with integrity.

Suddenly, the word had meaning. Employees could use integrity as a guide when handling tricky situations. Managers could use it when giving employees feedback. Everyone was on the same page.

Take Action

Identify some of the buzzwords that are floating around your workplace. Take time to define them, and make sure everyone shares the same definition. 

This exercise not only gets everyone on the same page, it can greatly influence your next steps. 

For example, if a company is blindly pursuing employee engagement without defining it, leaders might conduct a survey, form a committee, and be done with it. But if leaders understand that an engaged employee knows what makes the company successful and is committed to helping achieve that success, leaders might first make sure every employee understands the company's vision and goals.

How to Keep Your Virtual Team Engaged

Do you have employees who work from home or in a remote office?

This arrangement is increasingly common in customer service. There are many benefits for employees and employers alike, such as eliminated commute times, lower office expenses, and greater flexibility.

There's also a big challenge—keeping remote employees engaged.

By engaged, I mean they understand what makes the business or team successful, and they're committed to helping achieve it. 

The challenge faced by many virtual employees is they often miss out on critical updates, or don't get to participate in "water cooler" discussions around the office where important decisions are made. And it's easy to feel left out of the natural camaraderie that develops when people work together. That office potluck is a huge bummer if you’re eating cold cereal at home while everyone else is enjoying Victor’s famous lumpia.

The good news is you can overcome this challenge with a little planning. Here are some key insights from leaders with experience managing virtual teams.

 An employee chats with a coworker on a video call.

Promote Face-to-Face Contact

If feasible, promoting periodic face-to-face contact works wonders. It strengthens relationships and many people find it easier to communicate via other channels, such as email, once they’ve met someone in person.

Michael, a client experience team lead, has one remote employee. She works in the office once every two weeks. "I intentionally try to schedule these days when there will be key times for her to connect and interact with the rest of the team," says Michael. "For example, last week, she came to the office on the day of our office Thanksgiving potluck."

Jeremy, a contact center manager, cautions leaders to be respectful of remote employees' time when asking them to come into the office. "We’ve historically had a tendency to try to force them into the office when they may not want that in the name of engagement and inclusion when really, we should be figuring out how to engage and include while at home rather than forcing a drive into the office they’ve likely been avoiding. Periodically coming into the office is fine if it’s mutually agreeable vs. company-sided."

Diana, a customer support team lead, suggests focusing in-person time on relationship-building. “That actual in-person time together should also be more for bonding than getting work done, so don’t plan meetups to be packed 10 hour work days with no down time.”

Meeting in-person isn’t always feasible, but video can still bring you face-to-face with your remote team. Chelsea, a client experience leader, has weekly video calls with each person on her team.

Establish Communication Channels

Using the right communication tools is critical to keeping everyone informed.

Holly, a marketing vice president, suggests virtual teams adopt effective communication tools and establish some team norms around using them. "Slack is such a great way for a quick chat and I love Zoom for longer or more complex conversations. Being able to see someone's face makes a HUGE difference in really connecting to them as a person rather than treating them like an email address."

Michael adds some similar ideas. "Our Team uses a chat page (similar to Slack) and we keep her in the loop on as much as possible. If any key conversations have occurred at the office, I'll send her a message to fill her in. We're messaging and/or speaking with her on the phone each and every day to make sure she feels plugged in to the Team."

Mario, a support manager, echoes the importance of keeping people in the loop. He cautions managers against assuming that remote employees will proactively search for information. “You’ve gotta show them and remind them. If there’s a demo, record it.”

Crystal, a client success manager, recommends getting the right tools to make communication easier. “We’ve invested in special microphones for our stand-ups, because our remote team couldn’t hear well if someone wasn’t speaking loudly enough. Investing in that hardware shows the remote team members that we really do care about their experience.”

One word of caution here is to be mindful of timezones. "Someone working remotely doesn't always work 9-5, might be in a different time zone, or could be a night owl," says Holly. "Talk with them from the beginning about what hours they will be working. If you need them to work certain hours, mention that."

Involve Your Remote Employees

Years ago, I attended a conference for contact center professionals. There was a day of site tours, so I took advantage and visited a Starbucks contact center. 

One of the things I saw on the tour was pretty amazing. We were all given a tutorial on how to taste coffee. The mini-training showed us how different brews produce different flavors and smells.

The most impressive part was the tasting was led by a remote employee!

Keeping your virtual team involved is a key responsibility for customer service leaders. The old saying "out of sight, out of mind," definitely applies here if you let it!

Jeremy suggests planning to include your remote employees in team meetings. "If a small percentage of the workforce is remote it’s easy to forget about them while presenting. They can’t see all the content, can’t hear questions being asked, etc. Plan on how they will participate in things like breakout sessions and ice breakers."

Holly suggests being intentional about creating places for fun. "We have a few minutes at the beginning of team meetings for talking about family, travel, and just life in general. We also have a Slack channel where we share photos of our children, food we cooked, restaurants we tried, sports games we went to, and so forth. It's our water cooler."

Kev, a customer support manager, holds all team meetings via Zoom. “Even where people are co-located, they join individually on their own computer. This ensures everyone in the meeting is present in the same capacity, and prevents remote employees feeling they are second class in the meetings.”

Celebrating big events doesn’t have to happen exclusively in the office. Camille, a former client success vice president, made a practice of sending treats to people when they hit major milestones. “Remote folks seemed to appreciate receiving tangible things.”

Take Action

Ultimately, keeping your virtual team engaged comes down to good management.

  • Make sure your employees know what's expected.

  • Communicate regularly to keep them on track.

  • Provide assistance when necessary.

  • Recognize good performance to let remote employees know they're appreciated.

  • Avoid micromanagement.

That last one is important.

Nobody likes a micromanager, but a micromanager can really be annoying in a remote situation. I know a remote employee whose boss used to email her at all hours, even late at night, and expect an immediate response. It was frustratingly annoying, and her engagement suffered.

Be thoughtful about the relationships you create with your virtual team, and engaging them should become much easier.