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A 3-Step Problem-Solving Method for Any Problem

How to deal with a pissed-off client, a wild turtle, or anything else that comes up.
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So there's this giant turtle terrorizing a small village in Bavaria, Germany. The turtle's name is Lotti, which doesn't sound like such a scary thing, except that a few weeks ago the animal was said to have severed an eight year old boy's Achilles tendon while he was swimming in a nearby lake. Not good. So in response to the threat, the town's leader, Mayor Andreas Lieb, designated Lotti the Turtle to be enemy No. 1 and has left no stone unturned in his effort to catch the beast.

"Having tried everything, including dredging the lake, scouring the lake floor with hunting dogs, surrounding the lake with an electric fence, and setting up traps around the lake to prevent Lotti from slipping away, there has been no sign of the reptile," says one German news report. "The lake has now been partially refilled with water covering about a fifth of the floor, at a depth of about 20 centimeters in order to entice the reptile into a smaller piece of ground."

The mayor, at his wits end, has now commissioned a massive rake from a 75-year-old blacksmith. (A what? I'll leave that one for another time.) The report continues: "Pulled by a system of ropes, the plan is to use the meter-wide, wrought-iron rake to dredge the whole of the 16,000 meter-squared lake floor and force this "master of disguise" out of her muddy hideaway."

A Leadership Lesson in Problem-Solving

OK, hold on a minute. Has anyone even seen this creature? I can't be sure. And are the kid's injuries from a snapping turtle and not from something else? More importantly, is it really worth all this effort and expense to find a...turtle? Doesn't this mayor have a few other important things to do? Any chance he could just let this whole issue rest and work harder on lowering taxes, improving municipal services--and making more pretzels? (It's Bavaria, remember?) Ah, but you can relate, right? I know I can. Lotti the Turtle got under the mayor's skin. This happens to you. It often happens to me.

Last week, for example, I received an irate email from John, a customer. He was upset. The project that I'm doing for him is now "officially over-budget," he complained. And it's still not complete. Let's not get into whose fault this is because the important thing is that he's a customer and he's upset. (For the record, it's his fault but, again, let's not get into it, OK?) 

"I paid good money for this software," he ranted, "...and trusted your company to get my people trained by now and no one's using the system. I demand a meeting to resolve this problem or a full refund of the payment we made!"

So that day, John the Customer was my Lotti the Turtle. A big, ugly snapping turtle that took a bite out of my Achilles tendon. And with a German accent to boot. (His family is originally from Munich. Go figure.)

Universal Problem-Solving Strategies

So what should I do? Do I meet with this guy? Continue to throw good money after bad? Like Mayor Lieb, do I pull out all stops and dredge the lake in order to accomplish the mission and make him happy? Will the turtle even be there? Will this customer ever be happy? What does a good leader do in this situation? The good news is that this is not the first time a leader faced this issue. In fact, I've watched other, more successful business executives handle situations like these. And here's what I've learned.

To fix a problem, follow these three steps:

1. Determine what the return on investment will be.
Every single solution to a problem has a return on investment. Sadly it is sometimes not worth spending billions of dollars to research a disease that only affects a few hundred people a year. It may not be worth the time and expense required to create an enormous rake to scour the bottom of a lake just to find one turtle. And it really may not be worth the effort to fix the problems that John is allegedly having with the software system my company installed. There's the right thing to do and sometimes the right thing to do is what's right for your people and company. And spending unnecessary dollars on a client who may never be happy and will likely not provide much future revenue--instead of devoting those resources to better clients and better projects--may not be the best use of my limited resources. Or maybe that client could have a lot of future value. Maybe he is considering other projects, or has other friends who may be interested in my software. There has to be a financial calculation made. Great leaders do the math.

2. Make a plan and communicate it.
Once you figure your ROI, you need to have a plan, and tell your people about it. What's the end result? What's the exact deliverable? Is it the capture of the turtle or its grisly, excellent death? Is it to fix a specific list of issues that John is having (will that make that project complete)? And why are we doing this in the first place? I think Mayor Lieb owes the townspeople an explanation as to why he's so obsessed with Lotti the Turtle and why they should be concerned as well. At the same time, I need to explain to my people the importance of John as a client (even though he's kind of a jerk), and the gravity of the issues we need to address. People need to know why they're being asked to do stuff. It gives them meaning and helps them do a better job. Great leaders inspire their followers with purpose.

3. Prepare yourself for success or failure.
Nothing is complete without an end game. If Mayor Lieb captures Lotti the Turtle then he should be thinking well in advance how he will capitalize on his fantastic success. He has to be prepared to answer the inevitable questions like: "Why did you spend this money to capture a lousy turtle?" "How do you know there isn't another turtle in there?" "Can we start celebrating Oktoberfest earlier this year?" The same is true if he fails. What's the explanation if the turtle isn't found and all that money was spent? Failure to capture Lotti could result in Mayor Lieb losing his office in the next election, for instance. And what if my company can't resolve John's issues within budget and the time allowed? If I can't make John happy, I need to be ready to take my lumps and move on. In my business, I'm OK if two-thirds of my clients are happy at any given time. (Hey, I sell technology so that's not a bad success rate at all!) Great leaders have a thick skin and are prepared for all outcomes.

By the way, still no sign of Lotti yet. And I'm doing my best to help John. But catch a turtle? Handle an irate customer? Good leaders take the same approach.

IMAGE: Viewminder / Flickr.com
Last updated: Sep 12, 2013

GENE MARKS | Columnist | Owner, Marks Group

Gene Marks is a columnist, author, and small-business owner. He oversees the Marks Group, a 10-person technology consultancy to small and medium-size businesses. A certified public accountant, Marks has also worked in the entrepreneurial services arm of KPMG. He writes for The New York Times, Forbes, and The Huffington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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