Dealing with Difficult Colleagues

When an organization’s employees aren’t happy, it’s unlikely they’ll be providing the kind of quality service that leads to happy customers.

By John Lofstock, Editor.

Too often, retail chains promise satisfaction to customers and then allow internal politics to frustrate their employees’ good intentions to deliver. It’s important to remember that your customers aren’t the only ones who come through your organization’s door every day seeking quality service. Coworkers and leaders also need to be served. If they’re not happy, it’s not likely they’ll deliver stellar service, and the same goes for you.

Inevitably, difficult people will creep into your work life, disturbing your, your employees’ and your leaders’ workflow and negatively affecting the service you all provide your customers.

Ron Kaufman has some eye-opening news. He said that at some point, we’re all viewed by our colleagues as the organization’s difficult person. That’s why it’s important to find a way to provide uplifting service internally all the time, even when difficult situations arise, so internal tiffs don’t lead to rifts with customers.

“Once you’ve characterized someone as a difficult person, you’re already in a lose-lose situation,” said Kaufman, author of the New York Times bestseller “Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues and Everyone Else You Meet.”

According to Kaufman, there are no difficult customers; there are only difficult customer situations. “Similarly, there are no difficult coworkers. There are only difficult coworker situations,” he said. “Once you start to think differently about how to manage those difficult situations, everyone can be more satisfied and better served, including you, your colleagues, and most importantly, your customers.”

What Kaufman is talking about is an uplifting service culture change. He explained that service is taking action to create value for someone else, and that someone else can be outside or inside your chain.

“When the entire organization agrees to define the way they work together using this definition of service, everyone will be able to focus on creating value and serving each other better, which leads to better external service,” Kaufman said. “Instead of seeing an angry coworker and not wanting to have anything to do with him, you will naturally stop and think, What does this person value? What is he not getting that he needs? What can I do now to serve him better? When this culture of service takes hold in the organization, everyone feels better and works better together.”

To begin creating uplifting service, Kaufman offered the following five tips:
Assess the situation carefully. Is your colleague deeply upset or simply having a bad day? Are they angry about an ongoing internal issue that must be addressed and solved, or a one-off situation that will resolve itself?

“Once you have assessed the situation,” Kaufman noted, “you can then determine whether the person just requires a little personal attention from you—or whether a larger plan must be created.”

Shift your perspective. Stop thinking of coworkers as difficult and start thinking about the difficulty they are experiencing, and how you can serve them to resolve the situation.

Once you realize what a difficult situation means to another person, you can approach the issue with more compassion, generosity, empathy and patience.

This is far more effective for both parties than concluding that another person is difficult all the time or is always overreacting.

“The reality is that you never really know all that is going on with another person, with his family’s health or his financial situation,” Kaufman said. “You don’t know what happened at their home the night before. You don’t really know what triggered this emotionally upset moment. You can therefore decide, ‘let me choose compassion for this person instead of judgment and start exercising empathy.’”

Lean in and work on the problem together. “Difficult” people often behave that way because they are trying to get something they need. Often, people think the only way to get their colleagues’ attention is by outwardly showing their anger. But we know from experience that the way to get better service is to be a better customer. And the same goes for getting the help we all want from our colleagues.

“Let your colleagues know—as subtly as possible—that being upset or angry is not the best way to get what they need,” Kaufman suggested. “You can start by saying, ‘Help me understand what you are concerned about.’ By saying this and then listening, often their anger will fade away and then you can both get to work solving the problem and improving the situation.”

Plan how to work together. One way to defuse a difficult situation is to pull out a piece of paper and decide what actions each of you will take next. This helps remove emotional tension and gets everyone down to work.

“The sooner you say, ‘Let’s figure this thing out. What action can I take that will create value for you? Let’s agree on next steps. Let’s make some promises to each other,’ the better,” Kaufman said. “Working this way creates a culture of colleagues taking action to create value for each other. It takes emotion out of the equation and creates a platform where people can work more effectively with each other.”

Display the right behavior. An important and lasting way to make this behavior a part of your company culture is to role model it yourself. And you can do this from any position in the organization: from the top, the middle or the frontline. Eventually, your colleagues will see how you handle these difficult situations and how well your approach leads to positive action. They will follow your actions.

“When others see that problems don’t need to be painful, that emotions don’t need to be escalated, they’ll realize that ‘difficult situations’ don’t need to consume all your energy, or your entire day,” Kaufman said. “As more and more people inside your organization take this approach, they will recognize this is what the culture is becoming, this is what our company really is. Everyone will see that this approach really works, and everyone will want to take part.”

Think about it like this: The difficult coworkers you encounter on a given workday are simply people seeking service. “Being able to recognize and reconcile those situations internally is just as important as being able to recognize when a customer interaction has gone poorly,” Kaufman said. “When service is coming from the inside, it’s easier to step up your service on the outside. When that happens, everyone in the organization wins and the end result will be happier customers.

Customer Retention Advice for Frontline Managers

Your business is nothing without its customers. Whether you provide products or services, you won’t survive unless individuals or other businesses keep interested in your offerings and want to pay for them. In a difficult economy, your employees fight a constant battle with competitors for new customers and to retain current clients, which itself has become a critical aspect of sustaining business.

Achieving customer satisfaction that keeps clients coming back entails much more than selling a good product or service or having a good sales process. Brandon Balsley, a Sage North America small business technology observer, offers these tips business owners can share with their sales managers.

Only put your best people on the front line. Let’s face it, not everyone is well-suited to interact with customers and provide great service. Unique personality traits are required—positive attitudes, great listening and problem solving skills—and only people who possess them should be in contact with your customers. Assign responsibility based on each employee’s core competencies.

Know what your customers want. Client feedback is one of the keys to successful business. Knowing what customers think about your products and services and making improvements, perhaps based on their suggestions, should be part of your strategy. Also, don’t underestimate the value of negative feedback. Letting clients know and see you are taking their thoughts into consideration shows you truly care and increases the chances they will stick around to see those improvements.

Connect without overwhelming.  An important aspect of keeping your customers is reminding them you are there when they need you. Keep in touch periodically when you have relevant news for them, just don’t overdo it. Product updates, deals, improvements, and helpful tips for using your products in new ways are several types of applicable news. If you don’t already have these materials, consider developing a content marketing plan to support their development.

Track, track and track. Whether it’s through an automated loyalty program or manually recording purchases, tracking sales trends is vital to customer retention. This information helps you understand customers better and plan how to retain their business.

Be there 24/7. It’s all about presence. Whether using social media, email or phone, organize your team so they can answer customer questions or requests.

Audit customer experience. Lastly, put yourself in your customers’ position and make a list of all the ways their overall experience with you could be more satisfying. Cater to your customers in ways that will make their lives easier, and they’ll reward you with repeated store visits.


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