Customer conflict happens. It can happen with new customers, with prospective customers, or with major accounts. From time to time in a customer/supplier relationship, disagreements can happen over quality, failure to meet commitments, or interpersonal dynamics. When problems like this happen, you can quickly get stuck in a stalemate. Until the problem is resolved, you probably won’t be able to go forward or do business.

While conflict can be uncomfortable, it can also help you solve problems. The key to managing conflict is to avoid making accusations and personalizing problems. Try to focus your comments on yourself and your feelings by using “I-statements” like “I feel” or “I felt” instead of “you statements” like “you did this” or “you said that”.

For example, if a customer breaks a commitment to give you a contract extension, maintaining your cool is essential. By all means, don’t say “you broke your promise to me” or “you lied to me” (even if that is what happened). Pinning the blame on the other party likely won’t solve the problem and might seriously injure the relationship and your chance to do business in the future.

Instead, say “I feel let down and disappointed by not getting the contract”. By using an I-message the emphasis is focused on you and your feelings (not the act or omission of the other party). This gets the message across without blaming or pointing fingers at the buyer.

I-messages state a problem without blame. By not personalizing the problem, it allows the other party to help you solve the problem. If they were wrong or erred, it allows them to “save face” and make things right. Also, you may have misunderstood the actual commitment or something might have happened that was out the other party’s control. Thus, the I-message confronts the issue without blame and acts as a request for information or explanation.

It takes both bravery and restraint to confront a problem with a customer, while not personalizing the issue. It is my experience that confrontations with I-statements can help you get to the heart of the matter without injuring the relationship. Often this disarming self disclosure about your feelings can help build a better relationship while solving the problem at hand.

John Bradley Jackson
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