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Management: Tips for Handling Unhappy Members

August 20, 2012

The phone on my desk beeped. “You’ve got a call on line one,” said Meghan, my receptionist. “It’s a member and he’s not happy.” It hadn’t been five minutes since I’d walked in the door, sat down, and thought to myself that this would be a good day to work through the stack of papers on my desk. Instead, I spent the morning listening to a member so angry I thought his eyeballs would melt, then troubleshooting with staff to find a remedy, and finally closing the loop with his managing broker and leadership.

For a people pleaser like me, the first question that comes to mind in the aftermath of an enraged-member encounter is: “Is it me?” Is there something I could have done that could have prevented this member’s flash point? In this instance, probably not. The member had paid his dues late and was issued a $50 fine that he simply didn’t want to pay. In better economic times, I wouldn’t have heard from him, but since the member hadn’t sold a house in six months, the resulting financial pinch made this fine worth arguing over.

“Flash points occur with some regularity in all work environments,” says Terri Fairchild of Fairchild Business Coaching. “We can employ strategies that minimize the number of instances, but they will come, and when they do, we need to know how to respond—which is the key to our success. That is, we have the ‘response-ability’ to respond in a levelheaded manner. This isn’t always easy, but we can improve our success rate if we have a practical plan in mind.” Many times a wonderful source of the “practical” comes from direct experiences in the field.

“When I receive a call from an upset member, I close my door and settle in to do one thing: listen,” says Mark Stallmann, CEO of the St. Charles County Association of REALTORS®, Mo. “I’ve tried several approaches in the past, but after being in the industry for several decades, listening empathetically seems to be the shortest route to a calm ending. It doesn’t always work, but I’d say I’ve had an 80 percent success rate, and that works for me.” Following such a call, Stallmann sends a confirming e-mail to the upset member, making sure she knows that he heard her, thereby validating her viewpoint. “If it’s an issue that requires action, I’ll also let her know that we’ll work through the process to address her concerns,” he adds. “Depending on the situation, I’ll let the managing broker know about the conversation so he isn’t blindsided and to let him know that the association is engaged and responsive.”

If instances of flash points were limited to one-off calls, Stallmann’s advice would take care of every need. What should we do if a member begins a negative campaign? Or, worse yet, if we’ve got a difficult leader?

“On several occasions, I’ve had to deal with the ‘next level’ of negativity,” says Isaac Chavez, CEO of the Vermont Association of REALTORS®. “Once I’ve listened to a member and tried to assuage his concerns, sometimes it’s not enough for him and I can tell he’s going start a fire of discontent in his office. In those instances, I will immediately call the president and brief her on the matter, get her advice, and then contact the member’s managing broker to quench as much of the heat as possible.”

Chavez has found that widening the circle of support strengthens his position. “REALTORS® know REALTORS®, so including people who are leaders in the complainer’s circle of influence can go a long way in dampening efforts to cause community distress.”

Several years ago, Joe Adams*, an AE from an association in California, was forced to grapple with the highest level of difficulty on the scale of association conflict issues: a negative leader.

“For some reason, the new president and I didn’t mesh,” recalls Adams. “I tried every encouraging Steven Covey-Dale Carnegie principle I could muster, and nothing worked. At each meeting, this person was front-and-center disagreeing with me, calling me into question at every turn—it was horrible. Thankfully, several of our leaders were levelheaded, so rather than meeting alone with the president, as I’d traditionally done, I began to meet with the three officers.” The inclusion of peer leaders forced the president to modulate his approach, and things settled for the rest of the year. “As a result, whenever conflict arises with members, I try to keep another leader between me and the member, and it helps keep me out of the crosshairs.”

Remember, no matter how much we aim to please, difficult people and difficult situations will make their way into our lives. “Effective leaders are able to avoid confrontation, primarily by listening, and then using the effective communication skills that landed them the job in the first place to facilitate an ongoing dialogue until resolution is achieved,” says Fairchild.

No doubt the economic sentence our members are being required to serve will continue to place a high level of stress on many of them for years to come. Rather than return the blows, let us instead lead through difficult episodes by employing the “response-ability” that resides in each of us to navigate to a positive result.

Do you have members like these?

Ms. We’re-all-doomed-anyway. Optimism in challenging times can be difficult to muster, but members who feel powerless, cynical, or disappointed complain often and can drag down entire groups and even kill projects. Accept pessimism while projecting optimism. Listen carefully and summarize what’s said, then ask for solutions, to encourage positive engagement.

Mr. Nothing’s-ever-enough. If you encounter people who keep asking for more—more time, more money, more recognition, more attention—set firm limits in writing. Say no, if appropriate. Make them follow the usual procedures but treat them with respect and kindness—just as you’d treat anyone else.

Ms. I-don’t-have-time-for-this. Impatient people are often afraid that time might run out before they get to explain what they want. They can pressure staff to make mistakes. Ask them to slow down and repeat themselves. Remind them that there’s plenty of time to do whatever is needed.

Mr. I’m-the-victim-here. Staff may want to sympathize with members who portray themselves as victims. Those members complain a lot and manipulate others into feeling sorry for them or taking on their responsibilities. Don’t fall for their endless crises and apparent bad luck; hold them accountable. Help them see their role in a problem they’re having.

Ms. Do-you-know-who-I-am? Arrogant people can be very defensive and critical of others. Often this is to mask deeper feelings of insecurity. To service them, never criticize without first offering praise. Don’t surprise them. Be warm and friendly even when they seem aloof. Help them feel connected to others, the group, the team, etc.

Mrs. You’ll-fix-this-or-else. Hostile members tend to bully staff by being abusive and intimidating. They value high levels of self-confidence and aggressiveness and demean those who don’t possess these qualities. Stand up to them without fighting by assertively expressing your opinion (“In my opinion, you’re wrong.”), but don’t allow a fight to escalate.

Mr. I-won’t-change-my-mind. Stubborn people resist changes that threaten their sense of security. They become roadblocks to progress and grow even more difficult when pressured. Give stubborn people extra time to adjust to change. Give them options and choices, and be casual in your approach.

*name changed to protect anonymity