Dealing with Difficult People

Few new community managers walking in on their first day have the slightest inkling what is in store for them unless they have extensive customer-service experience. Without scaring everyone too much let me say in no uncertain terms that some of the people with whom you will deal will be very difficult. Why is that? Largely it is because of three things:

·         We deal in situations that affect people’s living arrangements, making even the smallest of issues seem very, very personal to the resident.

·         People find community associations a perfect place to enact personal agendas.

·         There are no repercussions for bad behavior.

The (90%) Quiet Majority

It is very important to keep in mind that the vast majority of residents with whom you will have interaction are pleasant folks who only want or need something taken care of: A tree trimmed, a late charge reviewed, to report a problem or ask a procedural question. These residents are dealt with quickly and without rancor because they, as people, are amenable and their issue is straightforward. The problem is presented to you and you solve it as best as is possible. You will deal with hundreds, or even thousands of these types of people but like all things easy you won’t remember much about them. You WILL remember, and be most affected by the less pleasant encounters, and those are with whom we will spend more time reviewing. Despite that, never, ever, lose sight of the legion of good people you meet and will talk to on a daily basis because they are what will give you perspective.

The (10%) Vocal Minority

In almost any community you can be assured of dealing with the same people over and over – the 10%.  The serial complainers, chronic whiners, angry-at-the-world-ers, or the causers-of-their-own-problems.  It’s a truth, it’s undeniable, and to put it bluntly it’s our job to deal with them. So, what types of challenging people can you expect?

The bored and/or lonely.   If you manage a retirement community, you soon find that many of them are bored and/or lonely – and don’t know how to manage that boredom or loneliness, except to make continual contact with anyone who will listen. Many times, that will be you.

The bored gadfly.  Potentially more dangerous and time consuming than the plain old bored, the gadfly likes to stir up trouble just for their own entertainment’s sake. Not satisfied with simply complaining about an issue, they embellish upon it. For example, the gadfly will say that the pest control company didn’t come to his home this month, or the month before, or the month before. Even though you may have all the records proving otherwise, the gadfly will disregard that. He’ll attend the next Board meeting, make the same complaint, then say that he believes the owners of the pest control company receive kick backs from the management company.  You know, and the gadfly knows, and even the Board knows the accusation is ludicrous, but the nature of the accusation is such that the Board will have to take some action or investigation for political reasons. The gadfly has made you all jump through hoops for his entertainment. And he’ll do it again.

Angry with a legitimate reason.  They may have been wrongly charged a late fee, or the entry gate closed early and hit their car, or every street but theirs was snowplowed. Although, yes, they are sputtering mad when you talk with them, you can at least deal with the situation in a relatively clear cut fashion: Get the street plowed, refer them to the association’s insurance carrier for the damage to the car, reverse the late fee.

Angry-in-general.  These are the ones you simply cannot please in any fashion, so you may as well expect very little from them except their anger. They will call, email, write, show up at a Board meeting, or lay in wait to spring a “gotcha!” trap at the annual meeting.

The agenda-driven.  These are the folks who want something and the only way to get it (in their mind) it to continually complain.  They operate under the squeaky-wheel-gets-the-grease theory. “If I complain long enough about the tree blocking my view, they’ll eventually get sick of me and cut it down.”

The truly disturbed. Just like in real life, you’ll have to deal with some people that are truly disturbed. Most of them are harmless, but always be on the lookout for those whom you think may not be so harmless. Let your employer and Board know.

Dealing with Difficult People (or, how to deal with the real heat in the kitchen)

When dealing with a problematic person, you must remain detached from the emotion of the moment by realizing that 1)Though the complainant appears to be upset with you, usually they are not: they are frustrated with the situation, 2) Know that your response can either exacerbate or diffuse the problem, and 3) Know that you can’t control the person, you can only control your reaction.

If you remember these simple truths, you will be able to stay detached. Once this is accomplished, you’ll be able to respond to the problem, and not the attitude.

Let’s get started

For the most part you will encounter most of your “problem children” on the telephone. There is a very basic structure of response to that person on your part that will get you through 99% of those (often heated and angry) complaints (they work with in-person complaints as well). They are:

Listen, empathize, focus, and solve the problem

Listen and take notes. As the individual is detailing his complaint, demonstrate that you are listening by repeating portions of what you have heard: “As I understand you, Mr. Smith’s dog barked last night between the hours of 2am and 6am – is that right?” Listen and take notes only. Why? Because you will need those notes for a service order or for the file, and it keeps you from multi-tasking (see below).

Empathize. Intermittently offer reassuring words such as, “I see,” and, “I understand,” to show that you grasp their unhappiness with the situation and are listening. As long as the complainant sees you are listening and empathizing, the emotion will tend to diffuse.

Focus. Once it is established you are listening, you will be able to focus the conversation from an emotion-laden complaint to a positive course of action by you on their behalf.

Solve the problem. “I’ll be sending Mr. Smith a letter asking him to comply with our rules. If the situation continues, please contact me again and we’ll take the next step.”

A VERY BIG word to the wise! When speaking with a complaining or angry person on the phone, absolutely do NOT multi-task; i.e., don’t check emails, texts or surf the net.Listen to the person talking and give them your full attention. Not only is it   is rude (yes, it is), it is obvious to the person talking to you that you are not giving them your full attention, making them more frustrated or angry.  I cannot emphasize this enough: Step away from the IPhone!

More methods for dealing with the polite-challenged

Resist the urge to immediate response. As soon as someone is “in your face,” it’s human nature to want to respond instantly with your knowledge of the situation. Unfortunately, this will almost always come off as defensive; so, take a deep breath and let the person vent. Then, respond.

Guide, don’t teach. “Guiding” someone indicates that person is intelligent about what they are reporting, but maybe not about the process of getting that something resolved. “Teaching” someone indicates they are ignorant. A “teacher” mindset is a sure way to get yourself crosswise with owners or Board members, as comes across as paternalistic and/or patronizing.

Apologize for the event, or their perception thereof.  When dealing with an angry person, it’s okay to apologize for the event. This keeps you personally out of the blame game loop, but allows you to take responsibility for handling the problem. “I’m sorry this happened to you,” does not admit guilt on your part. And it makes them feel better.

Don’t expect them to apologize for anything.  Get over it right now: They could have been the biggest jerk in the world, but chances are slim they will apologize to you, even if they were dead wrong, or especially if they were dead wrong. Apologizing will be way too embarrassing for your difficult person. Move along with your work day, and own this truth.

Dealing with a difficult group of people

Called on the carpet by a Board of Directors?  An Annual Meeting turned in to a torches-and-pitchforks party? Whether an ambush (you had no idea this was coming) or a meeting of angry folks you knew was inevitable, here are a few tips on dealing with groups of angry people.

Big groups.  You are at a meeting of the membership and everything is going swimmingly, when all of a sudden you are blindsided by 40 people angry about – something.  Understand what is going on, and quickly prepare yourself. Take a deep breath and ready yourself for an onslaught of emotion-laden diatribe, likely based on half-truths or cherry picked incidents that will reflect poorly on you and/or the Board.  It is NOT personal, it’s simply a tactic: the group intends to shock, awe and cow you, the Board, and any others so they can get what they want. When it happens, remember:

·         Don’t try to talk over them. Let them get it out. You cannot justify an argument against dozens of angry people, they will out-talk you even at normal decibel levels.

·         Always be the first to listen. If someone speaks up when you are talking, stop, and let the speaker finish, take a moment, thank them for their input, then answer (if possible).

·         Speak or answer questions only to those matters about which you are confident in your knowledge. Never, ever, give opinion or an ‘off the cuff’ answer.

Small groups. It may be your Board, a committee, or a small group that has a grievance. If possible, you set the place of the meeting such as your office’s conference room. Smile, shake each of their hands, thank them for coming and sit among them at the table (try not to sit at the head, sit to right of the Board President if possible). Listen carefully, giving them your full attention (again: leave your Blackberry at your desk), look at each person and take notes.  When the meeting is over, rise, shake hands, and again thank them for coming. This signals an openness and willingness to listen and help them solve their problems.

An executive told me that once he was called on the carpet by a Board for something one of his managers failed to do. It was a fairly big deal – and this was his largest client.  The executive walked in to the meeting holding a simple pad and paper. They asked him if he had an agenda for the meeting, he said, no, I am here ready to listen, not conduct. The group was immediately disarmed – and although portions of the meeting were unpleasant, that Board was turned around in an hour because he demonstrated he cared.

Body language

In dealing with any group (or individuals for that matter) angry or not, yourbody language is very important.   Always:

·         Dress professionally

·         Give them your full attention

·         Maintain an open and assured body position of shoulders back,  head up (sitting or standing)

·         Have an attentive facial expression

·         Smile when appropriate

·         Make eye contact 80-90% of the time, looking down and away only when natural and not as an escape from the moment.[1]

·         Thank them for their input and shake hands were possible

Know when emotion-laden conversations turn in to personal abuse

One of the main reasons community managers become stressed is because they don’t know how to distinguish between standard complaining owners and those who are abusing them. Better put, they don’t know where to draw the line. Here’s where: When it becomes strictly personal against you – name calling, cursing, and yelling about either the situation or you. There is no reason to be abused, and here is how to deal with it:

Abuse over the phone. First, put the person on speaker phone, and, if possible, bring in a witness. Many times this will shut down the abuser right away. If not, politely tell the complainant that you will be hanging up the phone and to please call you back when they have calmed down. Make sure they hear you. If they can’t hear you, and you have said it three or more times, hang up. Write a memo about the incident and make sure it is brought to the attention of the Board of Directors and your employer by memo.

Abuse via email. Have a standard response that you can cut and paste into your email. For example: “This email constitutes abuse as defined by the XYZ Homeowners Association and/or the ABC Management Company. It has been forwarded to our Human Resources Department and/or the Board of Directors for review and retention. Please be advised that, should another email be received from you that constitutes abuse, your email address will be blocked from our server.”

Abuse in-person. The truth is most managers will not be abused in person because those who like to engage in that type of behavior are much braver over the phone or via email; however, it does happen, and mostly to on-site managers. That said: Stand up from your chair and ask them to leave. If they do not, pick up the phone, and contact a) security if you have it, b) an executive if you are in a management firm, or c) the police if you believe you are in imminent danger.

Any time abuse happens to you, make sure to document it and keep a file for your Board and/or executive.

Dealing with Difficult People

For all community managers, the most daunting aspect of the job has nothing to do with the tasks that must be performed; it’s dealing with the people. I address this as a specific issue as I believe in being forewarned  and forearmed with the appropriate tools. These tools will not only make your job easier, but will make you more effective in managing your communities and the people therein.

[1] There are legion articles and books on body language. If you are unfamiliar with this concept or need some help, avail yourself of the experts online or in book stores. It will also help you understand the unsaid nuance in Board meetings.

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