Remain Calm

How to defuse difficult situations.

What do you do when: A customer returns damaged merchandise you know left your store in excellent condition . . . a supplier promises overnight delivery of vital computer parts that show up a week later . . . a friend's son you hired part time makes a habit of arriving for work late and leaving early?

You might fire your helper, find a new supplier and tell your customer to keep the item she broke. Or you could adopt a more positive approach to solving the conflicts you're bound to encounter running your small business. Here, four successful entrepreneurs explain what strategies worked for them to keep a disagreement from erupting into a full-blown confrontation.

1. Listen actively. Maxine Andrew, owner of Instead of You, a San Francisco personalized services and special-event coordination firm, resolves conflicts almost daily when a florist delivers the wrong flowers for a client's dinner party or a five-star resort can't find a client's reservation for the honeymoon suite.

Before suggesting a resolution, Andrew listens carefully. "I want to know what's caused the conflict, from each person's point of view. So I don't interrupt or show my emotions; I just listen," Andrew says. Then she repeats to the person in his own words what he has said so he knows he's been heard. Next, she explains what she and her client want. Active listening, Andrew says, lets an angry person vent so he's ready to listen to her. "A person has to work through his emotions," she explains, "before he'll listen to what I have to say."

2. State your needs. The only way Randy Cohen, owner of Ticket City, an Austin, Texas, ticket agency, can get his clients Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby or Broadway theater tickets is to make certain his contacts deliver the promised tickets. When they don't, Cohen has a major conflict.

"I tell the ticket broker in clear, simple, yet firm language I'll take my business elsewhere if he doesn't deliver," he says. Because Ticket City sells more than 250,000 tickets per year, Cohen's firmness generally gets him results. "If a ticket broker is the only one with the product I want, then I'm stuck," says Cohen. He ends up paying a premium for the tickets to guarantee delivery. "Fortunately, that doesn't happen often."

3. Be firm. Tami Sachs, owner of Vital Link Trucking Service, a Roseville, California, transportation firm, uses a simple, direct method to avoid confrontations when she collects on overdue or unpaid accounts. "I tell people what I want," she explains, "and the consequences of not getting it." Sachs told one shipping company owner she would send a Vital Link employee to his office on a Monday morning if the past due payment wasn't received the preceding Friday. A check arrived late Friday afternoon.

In another instance, when an accounts payable clerk ignored several of Sachs' phone calls, Sachs told the clerk she would call the company's controller at 2 p.m. if a check wasn't written for the amount due. "The call came at 1:45 p.m. that the check had been cut," she recalls. "Sometimes it's a matter of pressing metal to the floor and pressing harder until you get the results you want."

4. Try kindness. Wendy Walker, owner of two upscale shops, As Kindred Spirits, in Rockville, Maryland, and Washington National Airport in Virginia, says plain talk and a steady voice are invaluable when handling a conflict. She used both when a customer wrote a bad check and returned to make a second purchase in one of her shops, which sell designer jewelry, handicrafts and wearable art.

"I gave the woman the benefit of the doubt. I explained how her actions would ruin her credit and asked what we could do to solve the problem," says Walker. The woman volunteered to return the jewelry, worth several hundred dollars.

"She didn't understand the repercussions of writing checks on a closed account," says Walker, who accepted the returned item rather than pursue legal action. "Every situation might not work out like this. But if you make a person feel you're not an adversary, she'll respond."

5. Accentuate the positive. Walker's actions are similar to what Rick Kirschner, an Ashland, Oregon, management consultant and co-author of Dealing With People You Can't Stand (McGraw-Hill), calls "Pygmalion Power." It's a descriptive term based on the classic Greek myth "Pygmalion." Saying to a person "That was a stupid thing to do," for instance, reinforces a poor self-image. Instead, suggest the positive behavior you want to see by saying something like "What happened? That's not like you. You're generally so reasonable and capable of talking things out."

Most people, Kirschner believes, will jump at the chance to agree with a better concept of themselves. Let them save face as you extinguish what could have been a heated confrontation.


Carla Goodman is a freelance writer in Sacramento, California.

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This article was originally published in the May 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Remain Calm.

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