Difficult people… or worse.

A few days ago, someone walked up to Michael Arrington and spat on him. For those who missed this news, here is an excerpt and link from Michael’s own blog:

Yesterday as I was leaving the DLD Conference in Munich, Germany someone walked up to me and quite deliberately spat in my face. Before I even understood what was happening, he veered off into the crowd, just another dark head in a dark suit. People around me stared, then looked away and continued their conversation.

[From Some Things Need To Change]

This isn’t about Michael Arrington. Or Techcrunch.

There are many people who have inexplicably aggressive or even violent responses to what most of us would consider everyday frustrations. So what can you do? In the heat of the moment, it may be hard to choose your response because you be too shocked, confused or furious to think straight.

I’ve found myself distressed and frustrated after these encounters, even ruminating over the response I should have made, or the visceral reaction my ego would have enjoyed. But sometimes I manage to handle something really well. This doesn’t happen because I’m brilliant or cool, but because I’ve spent years working in support and service professionally.

In the support and service business, the customer who flies off the handle shouldn’t shock you, and certainly shouldn’t make you react angrily. You’re dealing with people, so it’s just part of the job – but too many companies don’t give their teams the training and support they need to handle tough customer situations.

The typical class on handling difficult customers is a couple of hours of role playing where people give rote responses to faked aggressive behavior. This can be great for giving your team basic ideas about what’s acceptable, but it’s not going to be enough to build the poise and professional manner that I see in the best teams. To do that you need ongoing refinement and support. You need some way of making it interesting. Most importantly, you need to reinforce in your team these key ideas:

  1. Stay calm. It’s not about you. This person’s behavior is completely out of proportion to the situation. There is something else going on, which you have no control over. Stay calm.
  2. If they are abusive, ask them to stop, so that you can both focus on fixing the problem.
  3. Whatever it is that you did do to contribute to the problem, fix it. Make sure they understand that you are working to make it right.
  4. Get someone else involved. This may mean getting your supervisor on the call, or even handing the customer off to the boss, or it may be just a debrief with a senior teammate after you get off the line with the customer.
  5. Follow up with the customer. This is something every company needs to do better. make sure the customer knows that it matters that they were angry and that you want to be sure you have done everything you can to make them ok with the outcome. We’re all human, and this is a human process.

This is the same stuff you would teach in one of those role playing classes. But the key is to continue to build a more sophisticated response to difficult behavior into everyone in your team. You need to keep the momentum; keep your team talking about difficult situations and how they have handled it. This process has these aims:

  1. Keep the learning positive
  2. Reinforce the basics (the ideas listed above)
  3. Ensure the team fixes anything that’s broken and is contributing to these conflicts

Whether you do this sharing as part of regular team meetings, or posting a “Story of the Week” on an in-house blog (comments enabled!) the secret is to make this an ongoing learning experience that is fun and positive. You want this to be part of your team culture.

Arrington is taking a break, which is for him probably a good idea, so he can relax and get his head straight after such a personal attack. I wish him well.

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