In-House Counsel

Falling On One’s Sword

It was one of those calls where the Customer just wants to vent to someone perceived to be in authority. They are upset at your Company for something or other, and have already taken the sales team to task. Now, it’s your turn. Some might say that the weight of the Customer on your bottom line should determine the amount of obsequiousness you serve. I would argue that in the scheme of things, it really does not matter the size of the Customer, falling on one’s sword can repair damage quicker than a protracted rant session that ultimately devolves into he said, she said.

Defensiveness is a natural reaction when one is being blamed unfairly. Years of therapy have helped me to deal with this issue in my personal life. Going on the defensive just allows the Customer to continue to belittle and fuels their fire for complaint. I take the opposite tack and, when appropriate, almost immediately apologize for the error, and take responsibility for the alleged misdeed upon myself. This strategy helps to deflect perceptions of failing from the local team (who will inevitably be dealing with this person on a much more intimate level and for a longer period of time). Taking the heat also can ingratiate you with your clients who work in the trenches, as it signals to them that you are willing to take one for the team, as it were.

I am usually well prepared for these confrontational calls, as the team will have briefed me ahead of time that so and so is a real piece of work. My first move when encountering such people is to try and find a connection of some sort. This tactic can unfortunately further irritate the complainant, but it is worth a shot in the beginning. As the discussion progresses, the connection may be put to use in order to form an empathic bond with the Customer. This accomplishes two things; it signals that you understand the issue, and not only do you “get it” but you empathize with their position. Now, this person may well have an unhinged case of the “Napoleonics” but more often than not, in real life, they are feeling pressure from superiors just as you experience.

Some may say that such tactics are disingenuous, but we’re not talking about personal conversations here — this is business. Widget A arrived at the dock in disrepair and the procurement officer is in a snit because he was to have delivered the Widget to Utah last week. Business is at a standstill in that office and he is getting the heat from six directions. It is not a reflection of your personal self-worth that any of this occurred, it is a simple business SNAFU. One that you have been asked to rectify. And fixing such issues is yet another area where you can prove the worth of your department to the business side.

For some reason or other, when Customers get a “lawyer” on the phone, things become more amplified in terms of importance. No longer are they dealing with the local team, they are speaking to someone in Corporate. Someone with the perceived power to “do something.” And I have to admit, being able to pull this off with Customers is a bit of an art. It is not always pleasant, and it may feel demeaning on some level. But again, it’s just business. Maintaining relationships with customers and clients is paramount to the success of your department. Proving that you are not simply a cost center, but a resource to be utilized and relied upon in times of crisis, no matter how pedantic or mundane, can cement the perception of value in the minds of those who truly matter — folks in charge of your budget.

(hidden for your protection)

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