When Customers Attack: Dealing with Rude Clients
I’ll never forget Charlie, a division manager for whom my IT department developed a complex system. The system was mandated by an external regulatory agency, so we had no say about the requirements or the timeline. Charlie’s customary style of communicating with me was to badger, accuse, complain, and verbally attack. Pleasant interactions were not in his repertoire.
Fortunately, I had a top-notch crew working on the project, and they quickly made progress. Then, one day, suddenly and unexpectedly, Charlie called to inform me that the regulatory agency had changed its requirements. And not just little changes; it was as if they had tossed the original requirements out the window and come up with something totally new.
I explained to Charlie that these new requirements would require us to pretty nearly start over. I’ll never forget his haughty response: “Well, I’d have thought you’d have anticipated these changes.”
Charlie was clearly not in a frame of mind to hear that we couldn’t possibly have anticipated every conceivable change. But it didn’t matter; we had a job to do.
To help us tackle the changes, he escalated his badgering, accusing, complaining, and verbally attacking. But the team members, although initially shocked by his behavior, came to the rescue. They reworked what they’d done, put in the extra time needed to stay on schedule, and developed a powerful system that worked beautifully.
I learned two key lessons from this experience. The first lesson was to remember that the customer’s job is the business side of things. To expect a customer to understand the complexity of system requirements or the impact of any change, big or small, is misguided. That’s where trust comes in. When you do your best to build trust with customers early on, they are more likely to accept explanations about delays and setbacks, even if they don’t fully understand them. Realizing that helped me with future customers.
My bigger lesson was that Charlie’s menacing behavior didn’t reflect who he truly was. I learned some time later that Charlie was under tremendous pressure from his management to meet the regulatory deadline. If he failed to deliver—meaning if we failed to deliver—he would likely have been relegated to the corporate hinterlands, there to toil over meaningless tasks for the rest of his working days.
Charlie’s behavior was a manifestation of his fear of failing. Once I realized that, I came to look at the badgering, accusing, complaining, and verbally attacking of subsequent customers differently. I also realized that it’s more productive to make an effort to build a relationship with them, reassure them, and strive to ease their fears.