The van with the new cables didn't arrive, the report is riddled with errors, the project is delayed by a month, the shoes are the wrong colour (all two hundred pairs of them), the refund hasn't gone through. All we want to do is to fix the problem, to stop the shouting, to make the whole thing go away - quickly.
Feelings are catching
Anyone who has had to face a disappointed or angry client, whether they are internal or external, will know that witnessing someone being unhappy is very uncomfortable. And so it is no wonder that our first urge is to change the manifestation of displeasure. Deep down we think that if we can change their behaviour then we can make everything go back to normal. And we so want to because when someone is having negative feelings in front of us we catch them like a cold. We also quickly become intellectually disabled - incapable of being clever, of thinking on our feet, of even being ourselves. So we plunge headlong into fixing mode, trying desperately to repair the outward signs in the futile hope that it will fix the internal carnage.
Your experience will tell you otherwise. You will already know that trying to pacify someone with advice, solutions and kind words works about as well as petrol in putting out the fire. What we must do instead is to understand and to prove that we have done so.
The first 5 minutes - putting out the fire
If we think of 'the fire' as the part of the problem that is purely emotional, our first reactions will determine how quickly we can succeed in putting it out so that everyone involved can focus on the solution and beyond. Speed of response is important. I think it shows we care and that the person's problem has jumped to the top of our agenda. For obvious reasons, the more people in your team who know how to do this the better! As soon as you can get in front of the client/customer/colleague/boss here are the only three things you need to do. Everything else is a bonus...
Listen hard. Reflect back what they seem to be feeling and what that feeling is about. Do it repeatedly until they show you that they are ready to move on. It may take two minutes. It may take twenty.
This is how it sounds... just fill in the details of your own particular catastrophe. But whatever they are keep them as brief and specific as you see here - Tweeting length:
You are obviously very annoyed with us for promising something and then not delivering it...
You sound especially annoyed by the fact that we haven't kept in touch on the case...
It sounds like you feel the most let down by the fact that we promised one thing and then just failed to deliver without giving you any warning...
They will still be keenly interested in their own story. Not in your frustrations with your own systems. Lengthy explanations of 'what happened' mostly sound like excuses or a plea in mitigation. Remove that possibility by focusing on them and the problem that the situation has created for them. Concentrate your mind and words on clarifying the biggest negative consequence for them.
...if you must.
Apologies work well when they are meant rather than when they are based on fear and subjugation. We can only mean our apology when we can understand what harm we have created. And we can only really grasp that when we have listened and colluded with the client to come up with a solution that they are pleased with. Our client can only really absorb our apology when they are feeling OK enough to see that we are feeling OK enough again to be saying it from a point of regret rather than one of fear.