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Don’t Let Them Steal Your Focus

Avatar photo by Casey Woods, Executive Director | October 7, 2016
We occasionally get requests for articles on specific topics, and this week’s article fulfills one such request.  As downtowns grow their business base and popularity, they often will experience “growing pains”.  Increases in foot traffic, parking demands and working hours can increase stress- but all of those “good” growing pains are understood (and generally appreciated) by local businesses.  Some local businesses have noticed an uptick in a different type of growing pain, and they have communicated issues to me directly, and to local officials that have encouraged me to discuss the issue and positive ways to handle situations revolving around an unfortunate byproduct of growth: difficult people.
There is a type of “law of averages” when dealing with the public.  The more people you deal with, the more likely you are to run into someone that you don’t want to deal with. The vast majority of customers are valued and appreciated by local businesses. Business people realize that without customers their business simply wouldn’t survive.  But, there are a few that take the “customer is always right” mantra to the extreme.  Some customers are just having a bad day ( 

it happens to all of us), while others are generally rude or

 narcissistic, lack empathy or derive some sort of pleasure from belittling others. As an area or business becomes more popular, difficult customers become more prevalent. At one time, some of these folks wouldn’t give downtown the time of day, but now that we have some cooperative opportunities occurring 

, they view it as “okay” to patronize the area.  You aren’t going to change these folks (and, again- they represent a small minority of customers), but you can change how you react to them.  Below are some thoughts to consider.
1.  Don’t let one bad customer ruin the experience of other customers.- We’ve all been there: you deal with one jerk and it ruins your day.  Issues arise when you let your ruined dayimpact the day of other customers.  Be cognizant of how one negative issue can escalate into a series of negative issues for customers that follow your difficult customer.  Be clear with your staff that, although you understand they can experience negative people, it isn’t acceptable to allow those experiences to impact the service that other customers receive.  I know that is easier said than done, but the first step in halting a negative “snowball” effect is the recognition that it can occur.
2.  Find a healthy way to relieve stress.-  Sometimes stress release is as easy as an inside “joke” code word.  When Becky Smith and I encountered situations that made us want to react in a less than professional manner, one of us would quickly work the word “Pinocchio” into the conversation.  It was a quick and easy reminder to reset our focus.  Some people have an area where staff can write to relieve stress.  Others require a “walk around the block”.  If a staff member has a particularly rough day, a treat of some sort in recognition of a professional response, is a good way to turn a “frown upside down.”
3.  Vent SELECTIVELY.-  In the heat of the moment, you may want to relate the entire negativeordeal in every detail and convey it to the first friendly face you see.  This emotional response may do more harm than good.  When you lose your cool and vent to a large audience, your customers may wonder “how do they talk about me when I’m not around?”.  Have a few close confidants that can help you gain perspective- not necessarily people that simply tell you what you want to hear.  Put the keyboard down and have a face-to-face with a respected friend.
4.  Try to empathize.-  It can be difficult to internally justify the words, thoughts and actions of someone being hurtful, but it can be cathartic to try.  Can you ever remember a bad day where someone took the brunt of your frustration when they didn’t deserve it?  An attempt at understanding can stop you from absorbing all of the negative situation and it may result in diffusing the issue.
5.  Don’t make excuses.- When a person is standing in a long line at the grocery store on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and they yell at the cashier, the employees instincts may make them want to say “duh, it’s the day before Thanksgiving- of course there is going to be a line!”  An excuse, no matter how valid, may simply serve to fuel the negative interaction.  Empathize, apologize but never antagonize.  Making an excuse is a pathway to an argument, and when you argue with someone that may be a little irrational, nothing good will come of it.  To use an old farm saying “if you wrestle with a muddy hog in your Sunday best, you’re going to get dirty but the hog isn’t going to get clean.”
6.  Kill them with kindness.- When people are upset, many want to impart their feelings upon you.  If you counter with “I’m sorry you are having a rough day, let’s see what I can do to make it better!” followed with a kind gesture, you may knock someone off there downward spiral.  Remember, the gesture has limits.  You don’t want to get absorbed into some casual strangers drama.  But, a small and thoughtful gesture can occasionally make the situation (and you) feel better.
7.  Exercise the nuclear option with caution.- The nuclear option is completely severing ties with an individual.  It may feel good in the moment to tell someone to take a hike, but it will have professional (and maybe personal) consequences.  Is this person driving away traffic?  Is this person damaging your organization (staff, productivity, etc.)?  Is this person forcing leadership to consistently lose focus on their core mission/goals?  Is this individual creating an unsafe environment?  Ask yourself these questions, and then follow up with: Is this person necessary to the business/organization professionally, to affiliated individuals socially, or does this person provide something important personally?  If the individual is having measurably negative impacts on the business/organization that aren’t necessary or offset by positives in other areas, it may be time to let them go- IF the situation is relatively extreme.  In my 7 1/2 years as a Main Street Director, I’ve only had to use the nuclear option once, and it isn’t something I would like to do again (though I believe it was the right thing to do), but I understand it is sometimes necessary.  Take a breath and have a process in place before you toss a difficult customer permanently.
With large events, a stronger pull factor and a dense area of unique businesses- more people will be exposed to the community core.  That’s a good thing!  Occasionally, thosepeople will act in a negative manner.  While you can’t always control how consumers perceive your business, you can control how you react.  You get to determine how others make you feel.  Why let a random stranger ruin your day (especially when you consider that ruining your day is what they may hope to accomplish)?
Talk to your staff about the type of culture you want to project, and don’t let others make you lose focus on your vision for your business.  Take care of issues that are real issues for your business, but you can fix structural problems without an intense emotional toll.

About the Author

Casey Woods, Executive Director

Before accepting the director position in March of 2009, Casey worked in both retail and agricultural jobs in the family businesses. A lifelong resident of the Emporia Area, Casey was a ten year volunteer for Emporia Main Street prior to his appointment as director. During that time he served as the board president and chair of the Economic Vitality Committee.

Casey also serves as a partner in PlaceMakers, LLC, a consulting firm that routinely works with both large and small communities, and their businesses, to promote sustainable economic growth through community and economic development practices. Casey consults with businesses, organizations and communities to understand their market capacity and fill vacant spaces. He has been involved in two projects that included crowdfunding as a part of their overall business funding strategies, Radius Brewing and Twin Rivers Winery & Gourmet Shoppe.