I was out to dinner with a friend the other night and she was so frustrated with one of her employees. She works in the legal department of a large radiology company. She asked a member of her staff to contact an attorney who was requesting some medical records. The staff member said, “She (the attorney) is such a pain. Do I really have to call her? I’ll just send her an email.” “No, you need to call her,” my friend said. “We need to get in touch with her right away; track her down.” “She’s so difficult,” he said.
My friend couldn’t believe the guy actually asked if he really had to call her. Just because she’s a difficult customer, doesn’t mean you have a choice. That’s his job. “Yes, you have to call her,” she said.
Of course she’s right; you don’t get to pick your customers, or your coworkers. And sometimes, as managers, you don’t even get to pick your employees. You inherit them. That said, I told her she was essentially doing the same thing her employee was doing. This employee was being difficult. Instead of really addressing the problem the employee was having, she avoided him and just sent him on his way. The employee was clearly dreading this phone call. He had had a bad experience with this attorney several times in the past. My friend said, “She is difficult, but that’s too bad. We have to deal with her. She’s very busy. He just needs to keep it quick, stay calm and not let her get his goat.”
Why not tell him that? It’s not unusual for people to stress over dealing with difficult people. Nobody likes conflict. The employee should not have been so “whiney” as she called him. But the feeling he was experiencing was valid. The manager would have served him (and herself) better if she took a moment to discuss his approach with her. Just as she explained to me how she deals with this attorney, she could have shared that with her employee.
When people are having trouble dealing with difficult coworkers or customers, take a moment to acknowledge and validate their feelings. A simple statement like, “I know it can be difficult dealing with a very busy or aggressive person.” That lets the person know you understand; which goes a long way when you remind them of their responsibility. “But our job is to……..and sometimes that means speaking to difficult people.” Then share your expertise. We sometimes forget that our job is to develop our people, not just on their technical skills, but also their soft skills. If we know something that works well for us when communicating, share it with your employee. Role play if you’re comfortable. Having people practice what they are going to say usually alleviates some stress, and when they are more relaxed, the conversation often goes better.
One more thing, use everything as a teaching moment. Try to notice how the conversation goes. If it goes well, praise them for their efforts. If it didn’t seem to go so well, dissect the call right then and there if you can, and brainstorm what they could have done differently. What other approach could they have used that might have made the conversation go more smoothly? If you can help them improve their communication skills, you won’t have to deal their push back dealing with difficult customers again.
Thoughts….. Contact me at abbe@TECResourceCenter.com
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