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OWNER'S MANUAL

How to Avoid Confrontation… and Still Succeed

Conflicts rarely end well, so it's natural to want to avoid them. But you can't hide from them forever.

For every hard-nosed, coldly logical businessperson there are hundreds of entrepreneurs just like us: Worried about how others perceive us and avoiding confrontation at all cost.

Generally speaking, that's a good thing. Conflicts rarely end well. Having a healthy concern for how others perceive us is a great quality to possess. People who want to be liked tend to be more likable.

But sometimes our need for approval—and for avoiding confrontation—can have a negative impact on how we do business.

Is this what happens to you when:

A customer complains: Your anxiety levels spike and your voice reverts to puberty pitch. The more upset the customer, the more you do to solve the problem, sometimes well past the point of justification.

Afterwards you rationalize your behavior, thinking, “Customer satisfaction is the key to my business. Plus I can't afford poor word of mouth.”

A customer pushes for a discount: You want to make the sale. You also crave the feeling of validation a sale brings. So you concede more than you should.

You think,“ Some revenue is better than no revenue at all, and if I hadn't cut the price I might have lost the sale. I’ll make it up down the road."

An employee is late… again: You don’t like confrontation. Plus another employee was late yesterday and you let that go. So you throw a few disapproving glances his way and hope he gets the message… even though, deep inside, you realize he won’t.

You think, “Well, he does a pretty good job most of the time, I spent a lot of time training him, and shoot, no customers were waiting so does it really matter that much if he was late again...?"

If any of the above sounds like you, that’s okay. You can't change your personality but you can change your behaviors.

All you have to do is be proactive. Eliminate as much of the judgment as possible from the judgment calls you tend to struggle with. The more prepared you are to handle a situation where your instinct is to compromise or give in, the easier it is to be firm, professional—and still nice.

Here are a few stressful situations you can easily prepare for:

Dealing with complaints. An upset customer is tough for anyone to deal with but especially for person who wants to be liked.

Take a step back: You know your products and services better than anyone. List all the things that could go wrong; the more possibilities the better.

Then decide what you will do in each situation: Repair, replace, rework, refund, discount, discount on future purchases, etc. Then rehearse what you will say and do.

If the customer resists a resolution and keeps asking for more, at some point you may have to say, “I'm sorry, but our policy is to... we simply cannot do any more than that.” You can fall back on policy limits in good conscience when you actually have policies.

While you’re at it: Identify ways to eliminate the root causes of the possible problems you list. You'll improve operations and won’t have to deal with as many complaints.

Negotiating over prices or deliverables. Haggling is difficult, but haggling, especially over price, can be especially tough for service providers. Why?

Losing a contract puts your self-esteem at risk. Failing to make a sale feels like more than just professional rejection. It often feels like a personal rejection. (A customer who doesn’t want to buy your products is one thing; a customer who doesn’t want to buy “you” feels much worse.)

Create a detailed price list and then think about potential negotiation strategies. But don't just say, “I'm willing to cut my price by 12%.” Instead, create discounts based on volume. Or determine ways to reduce service levels to meet a lower price. The more options you create the more likely your negotiations will stay more objective and feel less personal.

While you’re at it: As you develop a comprehensive price list look for ways to refine your pricing strategies. How low can you go and still make a profit? What products or services should you bundle? Can you identify a pricing strategy that make the decision easier for potential customers?

Managing employees. Every employee is different, so great leaders apply judgment and discretion.

At the same time, making too many ad hoc decisions can also destroy a work team. Sometimes policies are your best friends, especially in objective areas like attendance, quality, and performance to standards.

Determine your expectations, quantify your expectations, share your expectations, and manage by those expectations.

While it will never be fun, this is fairly easy to say: “As you know our policy is that no employees are allowed to be absent more than five times in a rolling twelve-month period. Yesterday was your sixth absence and I need to put you on a disciplinary program...” Think about situations that can be by the book, and write and follow the book. Then use judgment where judgment makes sense.

While you’re at it: Managing employees is a lot easier when you set clear expectations. Overall performance may improve as well, since employees who understand expectations usually try to exceed expectations.

Saying "no." Refusing a request from colleagues, friends, and family is really hard. Rarely will saying no go as badly as you fear, though. Most people will understand (and if they don't that might be a sign they don’t care about you as much as you care about them.)

Depending on the situation, try: “I'm sorry, but I just don't have the time,” or, “That's not something I do well; here's someone you might call...” or, “I'm sorry, but we're just not in that market. But I appreciate you thinking of us.”

Make sure you say no politely, give a simple reason why, and then stop. The more you talk the harder it is to stick to your guns… and before you know it you’ve given in.

And later you resent the fact you gave in.

While you’re at it: Think of situations where you, probably without thinking, force people to struggle to say no. Then quit doing it.

Think about situations you struggle with. Decide what you will do before things get stressful or confrontational. Then you can stay objective, make better decisions, and greatly reduce your levels of stress—and regret.

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Last updated: Mar 6, 2012

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

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



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