Crank calls and threats
When we think of workplace violence ─ particularly workplace homicide ─ most of us imagine either crazed or incensed employees going berserk, or crazed or incensed customers running amok. In fact, these two categories taken together represent a small portion of workplace violence. Most workplace violence is either common crime (all-night convenience stores being robbed, all-night gas stations being robbed, taxi drivers being robbed, and cops being attacked while working, to name a few), or domestic violence that spills over into the workplace. As it turns out homicidal customers and employees are so rare they invariably make national news. None the less, many of us will still, at some point in our careers, encounter an irate customer who makes crank or threatening calls, sends crank or threatening letters, or even eventually shows up in person to be cranky or threatening. How should we deal with these people?
For a start, the initial contact should be noted. This could be as informal as a note saying Received angry call 14 January 1999, 10:15am from Gracie Andersen, complaining about shipment of bad 1000 year old duck eggs. Offered to replace them with 500 year old duck eggs. This note can be tossed into a drawer and, if you’ve successfully resolved the problem and you never hear from her again, thrown out. If the problem has not been resolved and you do hear from her again, you can hunt around in the drawer, find the note, and stick it in a file that logs contacts with this person.
Remember to write down everything that you can: The rule of thumb is that if it is not written down, and it makes you look good, it never happened. It is key to remember that the people whom we consider to be cranks consider themselves to have been wronged in some way. Putting aside the rare possibility of violence, there are two business reasons to resolve the person’s complaint. First, if you do resolve the matter, they will remain happy clients and will tell their friends and associates to deal with you. Second, if you do not resolve the matter, they will take their trade elsewhere and will tell their friends and associates not to deal with you. In terms of numbers, someone once told me that a single customer lost actually represents seven customers lost.
As a concrete, albeit low-level, example, some years ago a friend of the editor of this segment bought a quart of milk at an Associated Supermarket here in New York City. The milk was spoiled, but when she returned it, she was told in a rather insulting manner by the manager that Associated did not carry that brand, and she was refused an exchange. From the manager’s point of view it was an appropriate action: It simply wasn’t their milk, and he had saved Associate Supermarkets a dollar. From the customer’s point of view it was the wrong action: No matter how the milk got there, Associated Supermarkets was where she purchased it. If you assume that she, and we, and even only five others she knows will never, ever, shop in an Associated Supermarket again, Associated did not get good value for the dollar saved. Thus, it is always in a company’s best interest to try to resolve customer disputes, even those that are not entirely clear-cut. And, during this process, it is imperative that all contacts on our part be courteous, no matter what is being said by the irate party. While insults and snappy retorts may be soul satisfying, they only serve to inflame the other person further, and do nothing to either calm or resolve the matter.
If calls keep coming in for you, and you have reached a stalemate, it may be best to have the caller told that you are not in the office, but that you want the matter resolved, and have asked someone else to handle the situation in your absence. This person can then try to resolve the issue, perhaps bypassing whatever animus was initially built up.
It is important to remember that there is almost always some grain of merit in a complaint, and that the complaint should be resolved. An outstanding corporate application of this philosophy was observed some years ago by this editor at Simmons Corporation, manufacturers of Beautyrest mattresses. At regular intervals Grant Simmons would sit down with senior management, summoning more-junior people as needed, and resolve every letter of complaint that had come in. It was his view that it was not appropriate to tell a 400 pound man he should have bought a firmer mattress. It was appropriate to exchange it.
The physical arrival of an angry client can present logistical problems. For a larger corporation, which does not generally deal with the public, it is prudent to have a meeting room off the lobby, with no access to the offices, for just such meetings. In smaller companies, when the person steps through your front door they are in your office, and you have to deal with them. In all cases, contact should be non-confrontational, polite, and aimed at resolving the matter. From a physical positional point of view is better to have your visitor’s chair at a right angle to yours (at the side of your desk, for example, rather than on the opposite side), as this is perceived to be less confrontational than a face-to-face encounter.
If, even with your best good-faith efforts, it becomes clear that the issue cannot be resolved through negotiation, it is best to tell that to the other party, and to suggest in a positive manner that they should look to arbitration (as opposed to a lawsuit) for redress. If you have acted in good faith, and have documented all your contacts and efforts to amicably resolve the matter, arbitration ─ or even legal action ─ should pose no major threat.