Thursday, August 04, 2011

Nasty People (A Work-Related Post)

If you've followed this blog for any length of time (and thank you!) you know that work is a regular topic.  And why not - it's the location where I spend a third of my waking hours, right?  (Not to mention checking my email at home and thinking about work at other times.)

I came to a realization yesterday as I was leaving work.  After dinner that became a Facebook status.  And then this morning it became this post I'm now writing.

I've worked in a number of work environments over the years... now-bankrupt movie rental chain, fast-food pizza chain, small independent office supply chain, internet startup focusing on the entertainment industry, the internet division of a major motion picture studio, the internet team (of 1) of a large church and now the internet division of a very large Christian non-profit.  Interestingly enough, in every case, I'd say that my role involved customer service or customer satisfaction.  Whether that was a paying customer who had no relationship with me except that they walked in the door, partook of our services, paid and left, or whether that was someone who I reported to, or who relied on me.

In nearly every place, there have been people who were difficult to work with, people who made unreasonable demands, challenging customers or people who were just downright unpleasant. My (attempted) response has always been to try to treat them even nicer than normal, to respond quickly, professionally, to shove down indignation or pride and just hope that if I were extra nice, they might start being nicer.  I used to tell the people at the pizza place that if you were so sweet you made yourself a little sick, you were almost as good as the customers were expecting.

That model had mostly served me well. Moreso in the industries where I had a counter and a cash register between me and the customers, or where the people who I felt acted nasty towards me were above me on the org. chart.

But the place I work now is rather interesting.  Literally, the better we do our jobs, the more we help.  I have not been anywhere but the comfort of our climate-controlled office building with its cubicles and free drip-coffee, but I know that when I am able to do things quicker, with less budget, that's more money that goes out to the programs that are helping people.  When we make mistakes, we impact our ability to raise funds from those who have to make available to those who have not.  (The intent being, of course, that if we can "raise all boats," we can help those who have not to become more self-sufficient - development projects designed so that at a set future point we can leave the area and the people who live there enjoy a sustainable higher level of life - safer water, food security, access to health and education, etc.)

That leads to two interesting aspects: (1) everyone's working on very razor-thin budgets - both in money and time.  It gets drilled into you, but it makes sense.  Otherwise, we risk making someone else's misfortune and poverty into our livelihood.  But the harder we work, the more excellence with which we work, the more we maximize the resources at our disposal, the more we help.  (2) everyone's goals don't necessarily easily align - while our particular focus is primarily fundraising within the United States for projects elsewhere in the world, our office also does its own development work in the United States and even within fundraising there is different audiences and tangential efforts in long-term plays, like advocacy, media relations and youth programs that build awareness and help to give kids an idea of the global work we do before they are donors themselves.

It's slightly messy, but we believe we are called by Jesus Christ to this work, that it's not simply a job.  And that's exciting.  If you ask someone about how they ended up employed there, you're often going to get some amazing story that includes some interesting bits of timing or happenstance or circumstance, sometimes with the person telling the story recounting how they fought it tooth-and-nail.  But pretty much every one who works here really loves what they do and loves being here.  Those that don't flame out pretty quickly and move on.

But that leads to a high level of really, really impassioned people.  But also some really inconsiderate people.  In their quest to fulfill their objectives, they'll stop at nothing.  If you're in their way, they'll roll right over you.  If you are a dependency, they will intimidation and unpleasantness in an attempt to get their own way.  And worst of all, they may act like theirs is the only "ministry" - a great code-word designed to make you feel especially bad.  Kind of like Jesus-juking you.  Another great one is accusing me (or my team) of having a "lack of grace or compassion."

We are a very process-oriented team who turns out a lot of high quality work with a low number of errors and in a very efficient manner.  That depends on all the interlocking pieces working well - good estimates ahead of time on how long something will take, good requirements on what's actually needed, and then responsive customers when it's time to review and make the work live, whether that's posting to our website or sending out an email.  Sometimes they do go around us, creating their own microsites.  On the email side, it's much more difficult to go around us - our database is the database-of-record for the organization and so if you want to email them, you go through us because we provide the analytics, we track the opt-outs, the changes to subscriptions, stuff like that.  But people still do sometimes engage their own outside vendors for sending email as well.  That usually doesn't go over well and because it opens us up to all kinds of technical and legal implications, it doesn't go well for them when others higher up in the organization find out about it.

But usually, after people do go it alone, they come back.  The finally acknowledge how much value we provide and how easy we make things - not to mention how much more inexpensive it is for them.  We don't charge the departments for our work, we're funded by the organization as a service.  When they go it alone, they're using their own budget to engage a vendor, and typically multiple vendors since the really cheap and easy web or email services they engage don't include strategy or creative or design.

But because we're funded at a certain level, the trade-off is time.  In any given production web queue, we typically have a backlog that rolls over to the next week.  On the email side, it's a daily look forward at the next seven days and prioritizing all the upcoming emails.  Which means at the end of a typical day, we're announcing that we didn't get 2-5 requested emails sent, and we move them to tomorrow, re-prioritizing the next seven days, giving consideration to the emails we didn't get to.

That all happens behind the scenes.  There's only so clear we can make that and so well we can explain it.  And nothing is completely arbitrary without oversight and agreement.  Which leads back to the thoughts about razor-thin margins and the fact that our work helps children -- some people tend to see only their own work and act as if they are more important than anyone else.  And while everything is important, when we're only staffed to handle a certain volume of work, if we don't get to theirs, they are understandably frustrated.  I regularly encourage them to take up their frustration with my boss or their own boss. Perhaps we are under-funded.  Also implied is that perhaps their work is less valuable than someone else's (or that we mis-prioritized because we mis-understand the value of their work).

And that's where you get nasty people who will use intimidation to try to get their way.  I've talked before about how I'm being mentored to be more influential, but I don't think it's with this group.  But I also came to the conclusion yesterday that the way I've been operating isn't working.   I've tried to use a blend white-glove customer service, often in the form of detailed, professional, calm emails, quickly sent to explain the situation in more detail when they push back against prioritization.  Often when they push back, they'll either only send it to me or they'll include their boss and only send it to me.  Often when I respond, I'll include others - that kind of behavior needs to see the light of day.  I need others to see if I'm being bullied, or to know that if they're being bullied, that I, too, am being bullied.  The last thing I will stand for is to have my team bullied.  My team works hard and as mostly a bunch of introverts, they'd like to be handed assignments and left to their own to get them done.

But this hasn't worked.  At some level, my attempts at even-keeled professionalism, awesome customer service and an effort to really help them to become more educated might have been an attempt to contrast myself with them to anyone else reading, but it's really been (in my mind) an attempt to "change" them.  That if I consistently bring home the message that we have the organization's best interests at heart, that if things are prioritized correctly, that we are working hard, that maybe they need to look at the importance of their work, or that they need to take up the issue of our staffing with someone who will listen.   But my hope is that they will adopt a more professional attitude and communication style with me in the future and stop trying to intimidate and bully to get their own way.

But I guess I have to realize that if that doesn't happen after a few weeks or months, that it's not me, it's them.  And that at that stage, if we're all super busy, if I'm trying to go over the top in my efforts to handle them with care, that maybe that's a poor use of my time and bad prioritization on my part.  So, what if instead, I actually slow down the speed with which I respond to them?  I don't know if that will have any impact, but I know it will certainly delay their ability to reply again with yet more nastiness.
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