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I was talking with a woman who works for a startup software company. She’s exhausted, overwhelmed, and about ready to quit. And yet, she loves what she’s doing. The startup has been amazing at communicating its ‘why’ but the production expectation is very high. She’s working ridiculous hours, taking the problems home with her, and is not spending time with her children and husband. She admits that she, and others on the team, are getting cranky.

This young company has about 1000 businesses using its software, at various levels of commitment. For many reasons, some of the users are frustrated and complaining. When tons of customer complaints are coming through, it’s hard to prioritize. She seemed surprised when I suggested that she should pay attention to the ones who complained the most viciously.

It’s easy to write off users who seem brutal or uncaring but it’s important to remember that testing software as a new user is frustrating. Put yourself in their shoes. A bug in the software is a disruption in workflow and a loss in time and communicating with tech support can be downright frustrating. To be any help to the support person helping you, you have to be able to explain what you were doing, what operating system you use, and what browser you were in so they can replicate the problem.

I’ve spent hours being sidetracked by bugs. It’s maddening. Particularly when you’ve encountered the problem on a website for a major company. You don’t expect to waste time with customer support when all you’re trying to do is get some shopping done. All of that frustration can turn the nicest people into cranky people.

If you have someone who is completely cranky with you, yet has taken the time to give you meaningful feedback, he (or she) is super interested in what you are doing. No one is going to spend the time doing that kind of investigation work unless he cares. And if he cares about what you are doing, you need to find a way to turn that crankiness into an asset for you.

Cranky customers willing to give you feedback should not be ignored. Find a way to turn that crankiness into an asset for you. #customersupport #techsupport Click To Tweet

We could be talking about any organization here. Being involved in organizations, whether you are an employee or a volunteer, can be fun and exhilarating. It can also be hard to watch the sausage made. Sometimes we’re exposed to situations that are simply hard to understand. Sometimes the people that complain the loudest are the people who care the most, which is why solving their problems and making sure they’re happy should be a priority.

Here are some ideas to help you learn how to reset your approach and turn cranky people into valuable resources.

Start off assuming the best.

So often, when we are tired and dealing with someone who is complaining, we discount their comments or take them personally. Start with the presumption that cranky people are doing their best. Look for the good in people first. We don’t always know that someone is dealing with chronic pain, has just buried her favorite pet, or dented his car on the way into work.

I once sang under a pretty imposing choral conductor with a fiery temper. Most of us would not walk into his rehearsals late, or waste time by talking during the rehearsal. And yet, once in a while someone would do that. We would hold our breath waiting for an explosion. One time, later in his career when one of his singers walked in late, he calmly said – “I’m assuming that you have a very good reason for being late, and I don’t need to know what it is.” And then, he went into a diatribe about how he had to choose whether to assume the best or the worst. And he had finally realized that assuming the best worked better for him.

Be kind in thoughts, words, and actions.

Didn’t we all learn that in kindergarten? Play nicely. Share your toys. It’s not a project management suggestion that requires sophisticated calculations that will fry your brain. And it doesn’t require a lot of extra time. We can all do it.

I know, easier said then done. But when we change our thoughts, our actions will follow, and they will be authentic. You may find that it actually improves your focus when you aren’t consuming yourself with negative thoughts.

Use a little humor.

You have to be careful here. You don’t want to appear as though you are laughing at or making fun of a customer. When I get upset around the house, and start railing about some injustice, my husband will invariably sit back and respond in a laid back, and sincere tone – “why don’t you tell me how you really feel?” The comment always stops me in my tracks, and makes me laugh. I realize how ridiculous I must have sounded.

Follow a documented change management process.

Many times, cranky people come out of the woodwork when a company is undergoing change. While change is hard, I see a lot of groups making it harder than it needs to be. We need to remember that changing anything in an organization impacts people. And the people part is the hard part. We’re all different. We’re all going to react a little differently to the same email announcement.

I’ve written before about the how and why of change management processes. The important part is that you have a fair and documented process. In the absence of that, change becomes a chaotic free-for-all – where project scope goes out the window.

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.

With so many new and ever-changing channels of communication, it has gotten harder, rather than easier, to communicate. Here are a few ways to rethink your communications.

  • Stop thinking about what you need to say and start thinking about what your target audience wants to hear. For example, if you’re announcing a restructuring or new process, you obviously need to tell people what the new organization structure or process is. Beyond that, what your audience wants to know is how their lives will be better, simpler, richer, or easier because of it.
  • Use an open communication system to report on project progress. I was talking with a woman who runs a non-profit and uses a lot of volunteers. The volunteers are full of great ideas, but the executive director is understaffed and underfunded. She keeps a large Scrum/Kanban-like wall outside of her office. On that wall is a sticky note for each project or operational endeavor (large and small) that everyone in the organization is doing. She has a column for the backlog of great ideas and columns for all of the work in progress. When people come in to suggest something new, she takes them to the board, and has them review the sticky notes. She asks them where they think their brilliant idea should be prioritized. She reports that it is a very effective way to help volunteers understand the realities of time constraints.
  • Communicate big changes in person, in smaller groups, or one-on-one. This is particularly true with changes that are going to have negative implications. I listened to a woman recently talk about a large meeting she attended that was called to announce a major restructuring. With 20 years at the company, this manager watched slides unfolding and realized that her entire department was being eliminated. That shouldn’t happen. As time consuming as it is to hold individual meetings, it’s so important that bad news be communicated constructively, face-to-face, whenever possible.

Organizations make changes to reap benefits. We need to sell the good news. We can’t overlook the negative, but we shouldn’t let that become the story. And it will become the story if we aren’t careful. Let’s face it: bad news sells. Look for every opportunity to explain facts in a constructive way. Find the good and turn that into your news stories. And turn your crankiest people into your biggest fans. They may need your acceptance more than you know.

If you need some help, give me a call.