The Character Assassination

The Character Assassination

In my last role, one of my responsibilities was the performance improvement of our swimming teachers; relaying the quarterly “stats” to the instructors who had diaries with us.

Like any business there were key performance indicators in place, and one of ours was that a swimming teacher took on a shift with us and who we would send clients to was expected to retain those clients.

This was indicated by the teachers retention figures for one off lessons and end of blocks ie a block of 10 lessons. For us, every client cost nearly £200 to get from enquiry to an actual lesson so it was imperative that the teacher help them hit the ground running. If we sent a teacher 10 clients, the target was that 8 of them would rebook after one lesson and go on to become repeat booking clients who stayed for multiple blocks of lessons.

The reasons for not doing so are in multitudes and we all knew the variables – it could be that they could no longer afford the lessons, moved away, the goals of the client were met or changed but ultimately if a teacher was losing clients repeatedly it would be harder for them to keep their diary full long term and therefore maximise their potential earnings. For us, it was a constant need to make back (at minimum) what had been spent generating the lead and turning it from an enquiry into a paying client.

If I, as a teacher wanted to maximise my earnings I had to ensure that all 5 hours in my diary were consistently full and by ensuring my clients kept booking with me, I ensured the security of my diary and therefore my income. A perfect symbiotic relationship. The company provided the pool space and found me clients and I taught and retained those clients.

The problem was that discussing below target performance with a teacher was not always met with an open mind. Often it was taken as a criticism, an assassination of character or decimation of their skills as a teacher. I always tried to approach it from “how can I help you” not “you’re doing this wrong”.

The truth is we never really knew what they were doing wrong until we took a broad view of the clients feedback and teamed it with a conversation with the teacher. It could be as simple as the client felt the teacher didn’t engage them enough or made a poor first impression, could be timekeeping and in some cases it was that the teacher was SO good that the client achieved their goals in record time – a blessing and a curse.

I would say the worst conversations I had though were when an instructor took it personally and rose to attack mode with astonishing speed. I myself had been victim to these feelings of insecurity. I lost two clients in a quarter when I first started and having never been subjected to Key Performance Indicators I was incensed that my abilities should be being questioned – I knew full well the two clients had gone because one had moved to Norway and the second had achieved what they wanted (training for a triathalon) and were now training in a lake in the weeks running up to the event. So…I flared up. I leapt to my own defence. I hissed and spit and felt wounded and…didn’t see the situation for what it was. A learning curve.

I COULD have viewed it as an opportunity for growth and sat quietly, safe in the knowledge that I knew why they weren’t rebooking but my pride was stinging and I reacted based on my emotional response. I hated that my employer was questioning me as if I was somehow lacking. It did not bring out the best in me.

It’s been 7 years since that meeting and I’m glad to say that those years have given me a grace when faced with criticism that I didn’t have then – cut me some slack I was only 24! We are all vulnerable to being provoked into an ugly response to what really should be seen as an opportunity for growth.

As the owner of a business there is nobody to pass the buck to. It’s all about you, you are your business, criticisms of your business or anyone working within your business are criticisms of you.

Now replace the word “criticism” with “observations” – suddenly it’s not so threatening. We spend good time and money investing in market research – where better to do your market research than with your own clients, in your own business. Work outwards from there and you might find a sharper image comes into focus and therefore a clearer bigger picture from which to learn.

A business owner who hears feedback that suggests improvement is required to consider the following four options.

Attack – NEVER. There is nothing to be gained. Rule number one – you do not retaliate – nod and smile in the face of rudeness or aggression but LISTEN.

Defend – ONLY if the client has 100% misunderstood something and even then it’s likely some clarity might have been missing on your part. You cannot make excuses for REAL mistakes. This is nothing but an aggravator and a waste of time – if the feedback is fair and accurate; accept it. Even if it’s rude.

Learn – IDENTIFY what was done wrong. Apologise. Ask the client to elaborate on what they feel would improve things and apply new policy/practices.

Evolve – THANK the client for the feedback. Ensure they feel heard, be the bigger person and find a way to make a gesture of goodwill and as a chance to explain what actions have been taken to improve things. It will go a long way.

Now, I’m not saying it’s as simple as that – there will be people who criticise and do so in a way that is not only unnecessarily rude or aggressive but their feedback can’t even be immediately seen as helpful.

The most important thing here is not to match their aggression or rudeness. At all costs, remain calm. At all costs, stick to the facts. At all costs apologise – if they are incorrect state why there may have been a misunderstanding but apologise FOR that misunderstanding and finally – suggest a route of compromise or a summary that leaves the client feeling heard and you feeling that you handled it with dignity.

Anger is one of lifes great motivators and nothing kills the grassroots of a small business as fast as negative feedback spat out into the public awareness. You may in the short term feel like you won a battle by retaliating and meeting each shot with a punch of your own but that success will feel short lived.

The longer term may yield unwelcome fruit. As social media has gained such a strong foothold in our world and unverified sources of information are fast being given gospel status, we find ourselves at the mercy of a cyber lynching for even the smallest of indiscretions. You might win an argument over the phone with stroppy client number 4 but you can bet that they will regroup and turn their frustration out on social media, ratings sites and drip those poor opinions into the ears of your potential clients. For the sake of a few cheap shots in a sparring match do you really want to lose not just one client but essentially don a marketing prophylactic to kill your potential client base dead?

How many of us have had a bad experience in a restaurant and felt it was our duty to do a review to save others a poor digestive episode? Or felt like a phone call to our internet service provider was a never ending cycle in hell and gotten online to rant about them? Some of these reviews are justified but what may have started as routine complaint can rapidly turn into a declaration of war if handled badly by the business.

One way that I would choose to help a business with this occurrence is to be the filter for complaints. A friend of mine once described themselves as the “fertiliser filter” – in amongst the inevitable bullshit you get with a really nasty complaint, in amongst the rage and the frustration are often some really useful nuggets. These can be turned into fertiliser and churned out to feed the rose garden. Finding the constructive in amongst the insulting is a skill we should all learn but if you feel a little insecure and worry that you won’t mentally recover from any criticism or even say something you’ll regret – perhaps a mediator to read, summarise and relay to you the basic points of a complaint would be useful? Someone to smooth off the edges and help construct a heart felt response that doesn’t just solve the problem but LIFTS the profile of your business and enhances it’s reputation for caring about customers.

When I was running a swimming school I became aware of two mums who were visibly unhappy, they had a lot of negative feedback (some valid and some because they weren’t familiar with teaching swimming) but I made it my personal mission to not only listen but to smile while listening – even when they were hostile to the point of rudeness. I’d go the extra mile, take notes, empathise and give consistent feedback each week to how their criticisms were progressing, what changes it had borne and how pleased I was that they had felt comfortable coming and telling me their thoughts. Within 6 weeks these two ladies greeted me warmly on poolside every week and were singing the praises of our team to everyone – by turning their opinion of us around they were suddenly coming to tell me about new families they had referred to us and as a result – our reputation flourished and we gained clients.

What I’m saying is; everyone loves a good redemption storyline.

Make every complaint yours.


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