Let Me Get Back to You


Sometimes the best thing that can be said during a confrontation is nothing at all. But if you're forced to respond, just promise that you'll get back to the situation at a better time. In this week's column, Peter Clark recalls a time when a competitor completely extinguished any chances of striking a business deal by letting his temper flare...in front of an audience during a teleconference call. From that incident, Peter learned to recognize when people are dangerously reaching their breaking points. No longer intimidated by temperamental barks, Peter explains how he keeps his cool during battle.

How to Dig Your Own Hole
There are times when my job offers opportunity for great entertainment. Several years ago, I was in a conference call with one of our customers. We needed to interface to a competitor's system, and the competitor was being less than helpful. The purpose of the call was to come up with a plan of action to address this problem.

The call started amicably enough, with the competitor's salesperson schmoozing the customer and assuring them that they would be more than happy to help us. He then called his head of engineering to iron out the details.

Things started to get interesting almost immediately. The head had been up the night before at another site working on a project that wasn't going well. He was short of sleep, patience, and temper, and was not in a mood to cooperate. Soon, he was shouting that he wasn't going to provide anything.

A wise man once said not to step in front of your enemy when he is shooting himself. I contented myself with just sitting there in stunned disbelief, while my competitor steadily dug himself in deeper with our mutual customer. Whenever he started to wind down, I'd ask a question, and off he'd go again.

Afterward, the salesman tried to patch things up, but the damage had been done. The customer agreed to give us a change order to bypass interfacing with the competitor's system, and he presumably paid for it by taking it out of the competitor's hide.

My competitor succeeded in hanging himself with his own tongue.

Patience Is a Virtue
I do not want to leave you with the impression that I am a paragon of civility. I have set myself up for months of misery for a few small moments of satisfaction. I have the scars to remind me of a few simple rules for customer interaction:

  • Give bad news in private - Whenever possible, give your customer bad news in a private, one-on-one meeting. Never do so in a public meeting, particularly one where they might lose face with co-workers or superiors. This will just harden their position against you.
  • Never shout - The first one to shout loses the argument. When others start shouting in a meeting, I speak more quietly. The louder they get, the quieter I get.
  • Derail confrontation ? If a co-worker is going off the deep end, derail the confrontation by any reasonable means. More than once, a project manager who wanted me to cool down has kicked me under the table.
  • Let me get back to you - Postpone confrontations until a better time. Take copious notes. Make sure that you understand exactly what they are asking for, and then tell them that you will have to get back to them later.

I suspect that "let me get back to you" are six of the most powerful words in business. The customer may forget what they asked you to do. At the very least, it gives you more time to consider your response, and to seek a better time to broach the subject with your customer.

Patience Training
I do not want to suggest that you should avoid confrontation, or that confrontation is bad. Confrontation is often unavoidable and necessary. Under the wrong circumstances or with the wrong attitude, it can be incredibly destructive. Confrontation requires preparation and the right setting. Letting tempers run high in a public forum is almost always a bad idea.

What do you do if the customer is getting unreasonable? The best thing you can do is remember that you are the vendor and that they are the customer. Suck it up and gut it out. Prepare your arguments, and look for a better time to present them.

Some people use anger as a negotiating strategy. They use people's natural inclination to avoid confrontation to win disagreements. Some seek confrontation for its own sake. They may even disrespect you if you do not fight back. Such situations require delicacy and diplomacy. If you cannot disengage, and you feel that you will lose their respect if you don't fight back, then you must ratchet up the dialog gradually, always allowing them to cross each threshold of civility first.

Often in a confrontation, people realize that they are out of line, but they can't back down gracefully. Always try to leave your customer an "out" — a way of saving face in a confrontation. For example, give them a piece of information that they didn't have previously, so they can say "I didn't know that — it changes everything!"

There is a place for emotion in the workplace. However, expressing strong negative emotions in a public forum is usually counter-productive and frequently injurious to your career. If you have strong feelings about this, then...let me get back to you.

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