Complaining versus Negotiating

If you've worked in the IT industry for any length of time, you've probably had someone that is unhappy with your (or your team or company's) services or products. Begin at Microsoft, my audience is pretty wide, so I hear back from a lot of folks that use our products. Some of them tell us they are happy with our work; others are less impressed. It's this last group I want to address, and offer a little advice. If you've faced this before and you're trying to find the best way to deal with an irate or irritable customer, take a look at these suggestions, or post a reply with your own. Working together we all grow.

You might have received an e-mail or had someone approach you with this kind of thing:

"I hate feature/service (XYZ). Why did you even waste your time working on it? And which idiot thought (non-sizable columns/no printout/etc.) wasn't needed? How stupid is that?"

Now, I'm fine with hearing about the shortcomings in Microsoft products. We have a site where you can formally enter those issues ( and get people to vote for your favorite change or feature. We WANT to hear from our audience, as I'm sure you do about your product or service, so that we can serve you better. But...there are ways to go about it.

Let's take the example above. There are two issues with this approach: The goal, and the method.

The Goal

Whenever I'm upset with a product or service, or with my wife,or a friend, or a boss, I stop first and try to think about what I really want. Do I want the other person to do something for me, or do I want them to know I'm upset? At first glance, it might appear that I want both, but we'll see shortly that may not be possible.

If I just want the person to know I'm angry, then the message above might accomplish that goal. You could also just say "Feature XYZ makes me angry." It's a shorter e-mail to write, the person gets the point, and everyone can go on with their day. But if you're looking to actually effect a change, well, that's another matter entirely. We do this in life all the time - it's called negotiating. Negotiating is the art of finding the lowest level of work you can do to get the highest benefit. For instance, I went to the nice folks at Starbucks this morning, gave them my credit card, and asked them for a large coffee with three shots of espresso. I smiled as I asked. They took my card, told the barista  what I wanted and only a few minutes later I walked out with my prize. All that was needed for this negotiation was: a) money and b) the order. Had I screamed at the barista about a sports team or not given them any money, I would not have gotten my coffee. Or at least I wouldn't have gotten it in a cup.

This is a trivial example of course, but it is interesting to me to see this lesson lost when something doesn't go the way we want it to. At that point we want something (our problem fixed) and the other person supposedly has the power to make that happen. By the way, make sure you're negotiating with the right person - but that's another post.


So how should you negotiate with Microsoft for your change, or how should your users negotiate with you when they are angry? Here are a few steps that you might find useful - and feel free to use them for your own customers, or just point them to this post.

  1. Keep the goal in mind. Remember, you want something from the other person. What will make them more inclined to help you?
  2. Be specific. Vague statements and general comments are not something that is actionable. State exactly what you're looking for.
  3. Stay logical. No matter how angry the other person gets, meeting anger with anger rarely works in a business transaction. Oh, I know that sometimes yelling at the clerk will get a manager to the desk, but in the long run people will avoid you like the plague.
  4. Use the least force necessary. You never know the full situation when you're talking to someone else. The could be as big a jerk as you are, or perhaps they are way smarter than you. Remember step one - just letting them know how important you are or how angry you are isn't helpful if you're trying to get them to do something for you. So start off with a smile and a simple request, and save the lawsuit and/or fistfight for the last stage. Starting with your highest hand isn't way to play cards. Save that for later.
  5. Be ready to compromise. You probably won't get everything you're after, even if it's owed to you. Life isn't fair, and it's good to understand that sooner rather than later. Start out with your ideal situation, and have in mind what you'll fall back to.

So how can we re-write that e-mail from above? Let's try this:

"Hello - My name is John Doe ( and I'm having an issue with feature XYZ. I've read the documentation and done a little research on and I'm not finding a way to size the columns. Is that something that is by design, or have I missed the information?

If it's by design, is there a process I can follow to ask about having that added, or would you forward this to the development team? I'm happy to talk with them and show them what I'm looking for.

If it's just that I missed the documentation, perhaps you could let the documentation team know it's difficult to locate those instructions. Again, I'm happy to talk with them about this.

Thanks for your time -

J Doe"

If I received that e-mail, John would get a response. We may not pull the product and re-write the code, but the next release might have that feature in there.  It's specific, actionable and professional - and it includes a way for me to get in touch with him. As William Shatner says: "Now you're negotiating!"

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