Dealing with stressful relations

happy sliced bread
“…until everybody does what they’re always going to have to do from the very beginning — sit down and talk!”

Sometimes, there are customers, and users, that frustrate us. They tell us we’re idiots because we built what they asked for (not what they needed), or because they changed their minds. Sometimes they change the hardware, without telling us, into the DMZ, and then get us to figure out why the intranet site no longer works with single sign-on. Sometimes they ask us to draw red triangles with a blue pen.

Most discussions with the customer are straightforward, and you each understand the others strengths, but when things like this happen, especially when there’s a lack of honesty, or a common understanding, it’s easy to quickly reach an impasse and finding yourself getting angry.

I used to work in a call centre for an ISP, where much of the stress was already in play before the customer phoned. I had to learn to deal with people calmly, even when they were clearly upset at not getting the internet service they’d requested. My induction trainer said he took it as a personal challenge to have a customer like that smiling by the end of the call. We had limited tools at our disposal. We had engineers we could call, and we had certain discretionary payments that could be made to compensate for lack of service (although I note that my mobile provider pays these automatically, which is a far better customer experience).

Recently, in the news, there was a story about a wedding venue whose manager was annoyed by a particular bride and decided to challenge her on a forum about it, despite the bride not mentioning the venue, therefore dragging herself into a mess, especially once the other brides in the forum got involved, and she started posting contract details publicly.

It was not a good way to deal with customers.

I have seen it before. It’s an attitude I see when an incumbent supplier loses a renewal to a rival company, and tries to frustrate them, to make it look like the new team are incompetent, without grasping why they lost the contract in the first place. I see it with certain managers who have trouble relinquishing control. I’ve seen it with the customer who said “if you could only write bug free code, we wouldn’t need to test”. I can see where their thinking is coming from, but each example breaks down the trust between the customer and the supplier, and causes barriers to go up, which inevitably make deadlines trickier to meet, increase procedural safeguards, and kill any hope of agility.

I’m not always a people person, but I understand the importance of trust in maintaining these relationships. If you find yourself getting frustrated, don’t take it out on the customer, however much you may feel they deserve it. The customer isn’t always right, but they always deserve respect, if you want the relationship to last.

  • Take time to reflect, and calm down.
  • Sound out the conversation you want to have with an understanding colleague, or a rubber duck, so you can get to the meat of what you want to resolve.
  • If you need to sit down and negotiate a peace, set some groundrules.
  • Always challenge yourself to make the other person happy.
  • Be honest.

And it’s not just your customers, I’ve had to deal with big disagreements in the team as well. Sometimes you need to shepherd the team, and sometimes you need to manage them. Just don’t become part of the problem.

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