Through the Eyes of a Troubled Customer


Have you ever had to cope with a demanding developer? A touchy tester? A quarrelsome QA person? A cantankerous customer? Why oh why do people act that way? This column describes the route one IT group took to reverse a customer's bad attitude and make her a valuable ally.

When people behave in an infuriating manner, it could be that they're being deliberately irksome. But it could also be that their attitudes and actions are as well-founded as your own, when considered in terms of their particular view of the world. So rather than just wondering why they act that way, it can be helpful to ponder what might account for their behavior. Under what kinds of circumstances might their actions and attitudes make sense?

Consider the Possibilities
When we consider what might account for someone's behavior, we do two positive things for ourselves. First, we avoid the trap of automatically judging others based on what's on the surface—their overt behavior, in other words. Second, we may come to see the person in a different light, and as a result, become open to other ways of working with the person that might lead to more positive outcomes.

This process of considering the possibilities can be especially helpful in improving relationships. Here's how: Think of someone you are dependent on for the successful completion of your project and whose behavior you find frustrating or counterproductive. Brainstorm with your teammates and generate a wide-ranging list of factors that might explain this behavior. Then select one or two of the items on your list, and discuss how you might work differently with the person based on these possibilities.

Let Me Count the Ways
Here's an example from an IT team that had a customer who nearly drove them crazy. She was perfect, or so it sounded when she came a-calling. To hear her tell it, she could do nothing wrong and IT could do nothing right. Her favorite phrases were "Why do you always?…" and "Why don't you ever?…" When she was out of earshot, they referred to her as Ms. C (for Curmudgeon), though a variety of other pet names sometimes surfaced.

It would have been easy to write off Ms. C as simply a cranky, crabby customer. But was she? I asked members of the IT team to brainstorm about possibilities, no matter how far-fetched, that might account for her behavior. Here are some of the things they came up with:

  • She's passionate about her work and unintentionally comes on too strong
  • She was raised to believe that if you don't use a domineering style, people won't pay attention
  • She desperately needs to have her views acknowledged, but the harder she tries, the more people shut her out, so she tries even harder
  • She's actually a likable person who just doesn't realize how she comes across to others, and no one has ever given her helpful feedback
  • She's modeling the behavior of her superior, Mr. Super-Curmudgeon
  • The prospect of a big bonus drives her to exhibit behavior, which she hopes will ensure her success
  • Technology baffles her, and she uses a belligerent style to mask her feelings of incompetence
  • She's under pressure from her management to deliver results or join the unemployment line
  • The IT group in her previous company botched a major project, and she's determined not to let that happen again
  • Beat-'em-up behavior is the norm in her department, and so it's what she's become accustomed to
  • She had a troubled childhood and ever since has been quick to find fault with others
  • Contending with her teenagers affects her behavior at work

Clearly, the possibilities are numerous. Even though you're not likely to ever know which ones truly account for a particular person's behavior, acknowledging the possibilities can (if you're willing) lead you to explore alternative approaches to working with that person. And those approaches may turn things around.

The members of this particular IT group decided that it was Ms. C's need to have her views acknowledged that caused her bad attitude. They decided that in future interactions with her, they'd modify their behavior based on that assumption. And so they did. Over the next few months, they let her tout her ideas and voice her grievances. They listened without interrupting. (Yes, it was difficult!) They asked questions and empathized. They solicited her opinions. They tried to find positive points in her venting, and in so doing, they actually found several.

The change wasn't immediate, but over time, her aggressiveness diminished, and then, to their amazement, vanished. Furthermore, Ms. Easy-to-Work-With (Ms. E as they came to think of her) started becoming attentive to the pressures they were facing and, for the first time, empathized with their challenges.

The result: The stressful quality of their relationship disappeared, and a supportive relationship developed. Where once they were adversaries, now they gradually became allies. One of the unanticipated benefits: Ms. E began to alert IT to problems in her department that enabled them to head off potential snags in the work they were doing for her department.

Relationship Reversal
Was a failure to have her views acknowledged at the root of Ms. E's stress-inducing behavior? Who knows? The important point is that if the IT group members hadn't changed their behavior, it's unlikely she would have changed hers. But they did, and the outcome was positive for all concerned.

Try it yourself with those who seem driven to demolish your sanity. Consider the possibilities that could account for their behavior. Modify your approach based on what you come up with. And maybe, just maybe, the troublesome aspects of your relationship will give way to mutual respect and collaboration.

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