Decisive and timely communication is key in settling disputes


Terry Sage of Trades Coaching New Zealand says sorting out disagreements quickly and decisively, whether involving yourself or a member of your staff, is essential.

True story this — how many times have you seen a business really suffer or even implode through no fault of the owner’s, but by a split-second decision by a worker that turned out to be a very unwise decision?

To clarify here, that bad decision could cover many areas, such as health and safety or job quality or the many variations of those. But this scenario involves an employee and a customer.

A long-time customer of an auto repair shop became friends with the owner, and has seen many a staff member come and go.

The customer calls in to book the car in for a service while the owner is away on holiday. Everything goes as planned until the customer heads out to his car followed by a company employee.

Here’s the conversation:

Employee (E): Who was driving this car on Friday?

Customer (C): Me probably, why?

E: You nearly hit me, twice (getting heated).

C: What do you mean?

E: At 3.30pm on Friday on Water Street you nearly hit me (numerous swear words deleted).

C: So you were the one who pulled out in front of me? (light hearted tone).

E: You were speeding (very heated, aggressive and more swear words used).

C: You pulled out in front of me mate.

E: If my kids had been in the car you wouldn’t be standing here right now.

Enough of the scene. It ended there anyway — or did it? No, of course it didn’t.

The customer came away extremely upset, and felt he was verbally abused and physically threatened.

So he got straight on the phone to the owner and then it got a step or two worse. The owner was unavailable so a text message was left.

Four days later the customer gets a phone call from the owner who leaves a message — “about your text, we should talk about it”. That was the message and that is where things have been left.

The customer has not returned the call, instead expecting the owner to make a huge effort to sort out the problem.

The owner has not called again, thinking the customer has decided to take his business elsewhere.

Here’s a scenario that has been blown way out of proportion through a split-second decision by an employee having a really bad day.

The actual driving incident was, in fact, a non-incident. Yes, the employee pulled out, yes there was excessive speed but there was no contact — not even close — and no road rage at all.

The employee’s bad day was set off because the owner was away, parts never arrived and a previous customer got grumpy as her car was not ready.

The cost of this minor incident is huge. The customer has lost a friend and a trusted place to take his car for repair. The owner has lost a friend and a customer who spent an average of $10,000 a year and initiated many referrals.

The employee has not lost his job but ended up with a written warning. However, add in the stress and the time it took up, and the cost is substantial.

There’s lots of things that could have made the outcome of this scenario better for all parties — but that’s the beauty of hindsight.

There are two big points that could have put it to bed, with an ideal outcome for all.

Communication is the first one — if the customer and owner had spoken within hours of the incident, then the owner would have had all the details to act on it, and the customer would have got it off his chest.

The employee could have been made aware of his errors and, who knows, there may have been an apology or two offered.

Why this story? Because it can happen to every one of you, any day. You can’t stop it because we deal with humans and emotions. The only input you have is how to handle the damage control.

Make it quick and calm, try not to be biased, and keep your emotions out of the picture. Good luck.

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