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Coach's Corner--April 14, 2008

Caught between her boss and her client, and not sure why

The Client
Name: Mary
Age: 47
Title: Sales manager
Years at company: Five years (two in current role) 
Industry: Agribusiness
Issue: Managing competing loyalties
Q.  My company asked me to soothe an important but difficult client who had been neglected for some time. After an officially approved and successful meeting during which I listened to the client’s concerns and promised to bring them to higher-level managers (without making any specific promises), my managers have adamantly ordered me to not contact him again. Moreover, they refuse to discuss the situation. The client is very unhappy, and my reputation is tarnished. What can I do?

A.  You are caught in a difficult spot — between your boss and your client — with your integrity on the line. You’ll have to decide what stand you need to take, and the most effective way to do it.

The inner game
Start by understanding your options. What are your choices, and what are the risks that go with each? Are you willing to risk losing your job to honor a commitment to your client? Or is the threat to your sense of integrity more minor? There’s no right or wrong — it all comes down to knowing what will let you sleep best at night.

Next, get inside your management’s head. Setting aside your frustration, analyze what may be driving management’s response. For example, there may be executive-level discussions that you don’t know about. Be open to the possibility that the order to not contact the client is the right decision; where does that lead you?

Now, develop a specific vision for a successful outcome. What exactly would you like from management? What would be the best solution for your client?

The outer game
Your best chance of influencing your managers comes from highlighting the risks they face. They have an important client who has received a ray of hope that his concerns will be addressed. If his needs aren’t met, or at least taken seriously, the company may lose the client’s business. Also, they have an employee who is feeling perplexed by the mixed messages she’s received. Finally, the business world is a small place; a customer who feels mistreated can do immense word-of-mouth damage.

Next, outline possible steps, based on as many contingencies as you can imagine. If management wants to repair the business relationship, what will it take? If management is ready to part directions with the client, how can they do so without damaging your company’s reputation? Develop plans to guide the dialogue if given the opportunity.

Finally, think about your management team’s communication styles. To get their attention, try different approaches, such as stopping by their offices instead of calling a meeting. If they don’t engage, then consider whether the situation warrants going to higher-level managers. That’s where your inner work comes in: Involving upper management brings the likely risk of angering your immediate managers. However, if you’re seeing yourself primarily as the customer’s advocate, you may decide it’s worth the risk. Or you may decide that you’re ready to stop fighting this battle, while remaining a committed member of the team.

The last word
In this situation, a sense of inner clarity will be your best resource. Know what’s important to you so that you can make the best possible case and can feel a sense of personal satisfaction, regardless of the outcome.

Liz Reyer, President RCC - Posted April 14, 2008
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