Dealing with customers from hell – part 2

In part 1 last month, I wrote that poor self-esteem and self-confidence are the biggest barriers to being assertive and dealing with customers from hell.

In fact, many of the inappropriate behaviours that we see in others, and in ourselves, come from this one source. It is an unfortunate fact that people suffering from low self-esteem may display some or all of the following behaviours:

  1. Shooting from the hip. In other words speaking before thinking, saying things they will regret and have to apologise for later. People like this feel self-pity, are short-tempered, tend to overreact, and rationalise their behaviour.
  2. Gossiping. A gossiper has low self-esteem and by gossiping about others, their feeling of powerlessness decreases. Such a person may become the trouble-maker of the office or in their family.
  3. Attention-seeking. Attention elevates the person with low self-esteem, emotionally. They are “high maintenance” people who sap energy from others, often displaying inappropriate behaviours and almost always regretting it afterwards. They almost always end up feeling even worse about themselves.
  4. Withdrawal. Sometimes to the point of becoming anti-social. Unfortunately this exacerbates feelings of unworthiness. Other consequences include others seeing them as people who produce poor results, lack discipline, are introverted, even rude.
  5. Put themselves down. See obstacles and problems, not opportunities, turn down even small challenges and are very risk averse, sell themselves short, do things to please others, can’t say no even when it is greatly inconvenient, don’t express right choices, preoccupied with themselves, sometimes to the point of being selfish, resist change, and constantly speak negatively about themselves and their circumstances to others. They procrastinate a lot.
  6. Suffer from ill health, and even become hypochondriacs. They are overweight or anorexic, show signs of stress, nervousness and anxiety (like timidity and even open fear,) smoke, drink or take drugs excessively, are sexually promiscuous, seem to be excessively hyperactive or excessively tired/fatigued. Constantly focus on every twitch, ache or pain and letting people around them know that they are not well. Unfortunately people’s reactions and responses normally enable the hypochondriacs behaviour.
  7. Half empty cups. People suffering from low self-esteem and lack of confidence tend to be very negative and pessimistic about everything. They are risk averse and fearful, have a negative attitude, suffer from the “Yes, but….” Syndrome, appear indecisive, confused, or complacent, sometimes put on a show of bravado, but also seem withdrawn, disinterested, apathetic, or show a “Who cares” attitude.
  8. Unhappiness leads to other problems. They almost always feel unhappy, miserable and even depressed. They don’t take criticism easily, don’t want to take responsibility, sometimes aggressive, sometimes appear greedy, irresponsible, suspicious, reckless, impatient, emotional/tearful, obnoxious, and withdrawn. They give no positive strokes or recognition to others, but occasionally give excessive flattery which is rejected because it is so artificial and desperate.
  9. Hate-speech and foul language. Someone suffering from low self-esteem may speak ill of others to the point of hate-speech, and/or swear a lot. They are often excessively loud, and indulge in gossip, deceitfulness, jealousy and envy, criticism, blaming others, and looking for excuses. Insist on inappropriate jokes and comments, often resulting in inappropriate behaviour that others find offensive. Unfortunately their behaviour is often infectious in the workplace and they drag others down with them.

It doesn’t paint a pretty picture, does it? All of the symptoms and characteristics described above are symptoms of a poor self-image, which affects almost everything in life, and leads to many negative consequences.

Here are some practical steps that you can follow to remain calm – and deal with matters for a more favourable result:

1. Remember that your choice is not limited to expressing anger or not expressing anger: Sometimes you can use a supportive approach. For example, someone yells at you and barks orders for you to do something you feel is completely unprofessional. Say something like, “Is there something wrong, Pat? I know there must be, or you would never speak to me that way.”

2. When appropriate, make the deliberate decision not to express anger: Initially, expressing anger may make you feel important. There are times, however, when you cannot express your anger, such as when a frail old customer or an innocent child angers you, or when a traffic cop threatens you with arrest. But the opposite may also be true. It is often very therapeutic for the other person to let off a little bit of steam, to express their own frustration and anger. Allow them to vent if you think it is necessary, and pay no attention to the hurtful things that they say. We usually don’t mean the things that we say when we are angry.

3. Get some insight into the nature of the difficulty: Do this by putting yourself in their shoes and analysing the situation, your own emotions, and your behaviour. Armed with this information, you can then take charge of your reactions rather than letting your instincts control you. (As the HBR article mentioned, perhaps there is some historical event in your life that is triggered by what just happened.) Ask yourself questions like, “What are they really trying to say? Why did they overreact? What is the problem behind the question? Why are they hurting?” Maybe you were just there at the wrong time, but if you keep repeating that you can help them, a positive outcome is more likely.

4. Learn to deal with your own feelings, especially your anger: Before anything else, you have to want to keep calm. Deal with your anger in a manner that helps rather than hinders your success. Most important: What are you saying to yourself about yourself? The moment you start doubting yourself, you’re dead in the water. Don’t take it personally.

5. Some other self-calming strategies include deep breathing and counting to ten, doing some physical exercises, as well as consciously relaxing your shoulders and stomach muscles, looking for positive things in the negative, thinking humorous thoughts, writing things down so that you break off the glaring at each other behaviour, taking time out and postponing the discussion until both of you are calmer, be aware of your own voice, and speak slower, lower and softer, vent your own frustration in a “safe” place, (but not your family,) or pass the angry customer onto someone else who is more objective and neutral.

6. Spend time with the person you are confronting trying to understand the nature of their difficulties, and using your skills to manage their anger: Skills like empathy, clarifying and confirming, and longer conversations will help. Ask the other person to do you a favour and talk about exactly what sparked off their rage, and take it in turns not only to speak, but to also tell each other what you just heard. Focus on the behaviours that spark off the problem, not on attacking their personality, and especially avoid using names and labels. It’s not about naming, blaming and shaming.

7. Ensure that your interaction(s) achieve desirable results: Set a goal up front so that the other person knows where to aim. You can say something like: “I know this is hard for you, but I also know we will resolve this together in a way that makes you happy and I can live with.”

I can’t remember where I saw this, but it really resonates: “Today is but a blink in the greater scheme of the universe”. Move gracefully through difficult moments. Don’t get stuck there. Allow yourself to move through it. You can do this without depleting your energy reserves – simply by having the intention to do it. Remember, life is short. Make each day count and stop wasting your energy on negative thoughts, unproductive thinking about who said what to whom 10 years ago.

By Aki Kalliatakis, managing partner of Leadership Launchpad

(In the final part of this series next month we will examine more practical ideas with dealing with customers from hell.)

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