Clients – Can you really see it from their point of view?

Neighbours From Hell

Driving through my old neighbourhood yesterday really set me thinking about seeing someone else’s point of view.

We lived in a quiet, wide street with largish houses. Many were families like ours, but not all. At the back of our garden, at right angles, was the garden of a house in the next street. Nasty Nick lived there. Nick had the look of a city boy and had been named nasty when he had written to the council about our dog barking at night. He was quite right, our dog was barking at night, but sleeping at the front, we hadn’t heard it. What annoyed us was he came round to tell us that he had written to the council to complain, rather than asking us to stop the dog barking first. As reasonable neighbours we shut the dog flap at night after that.

One Saturday we had just got back from our youngest son’s 10th birthday party. I can’t remember where we had been. Bowling? Laser Tag? We had about a dozen 10 year-olds who were in high spirits and rushed out into the back garden to bounce on the trampoline and do unspeakable violence to each other.

We slumped with a cup of tea with that very good feeling when things have gone well and the party has been a success.

Ten minutes later the door bell rang. I answered. It was Nick.

Nick was very unhappy. He wanted to complain that the kids in the back garden were making a terrible noise. I pointed out that it was 3.30 on a Saturday afternoon, in a residential area, and that it was my son’s birthday party, so a bit of noise was acceptable.

Nick didn’t see it that way. He argued with both me and then my wife for quite a while. Our favourite line was, “I can’t concentrate on my crossword.”

Eventually Nick left. We instructed the kids to make more noise. He wrote to the Council, who have a lovely form letter for this with a really world-weary tone, “We encourage residents to resolve disputes amicably between themselves…” Who then confirmed to us that children playing on Saturday afternoon did not constitute a statutory nuisance. We never spoke to Nick again.

Point of View

But driving past Nick’s house yesterday I was able to see it differently for the first time.

I still think we were right. It is acceptable to make a lot of noise in your garden in the middle of a weekend afternoon for a period of time. But now I see he had a point. The point is, it was annoying for him. He had probably had a really hard week and was sitting in the sunshine having a few moments of pleasure when “WWWWHHHAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!” screaming from next door. “WHHHHAHHHAHHHHAHHHHHAHHHHHOOOOOOOOO!!”

Now, 6 years later I can see that IS annoying. So Nick was right, from his POV.

What we both should have realised is that the issue wasn’t right versus wrong. There was no chance of resolution of that issue. What there were were competing needs that had to be balanced.

I don’t think Nick is so dumb that if he hadn’t thought for a moment about how parents feel about their children’s birthdays, that he wouldn’t have seen how we saw it. And we should have been smart enough to say, “Yes I can see that is annoying for you.” Even if we thought we were still completely in the right.

The right-wrong thinking is what so infects our politics. Whatever you say is wrong, the default mode for our two main parties, is bound to fail.

You and your clients

So how does that help us all talk to our clients better?

We spend a lot of time encouraging people to only talk to clients about what they care about, not what we care about. To do that you have to imagine how they see the world and how they feel.

A Thought Experiment

Now I’m sure you’re lovely and charming, but now I want you to see yourself in the worst possible light. Imagine a client across a table to who is sick to death of you, even though you’re doing a great job. Who is thinking:

Damn this is expensive.
And it always gets more expensive.
Can’t I get someone cheaper?
Why is it always such a struggle to get my own way?
Couldn’t we get someone in-house to do this quicker and cheaper?
No I’m not interested in your funny stories about your kids and it sounds to me like Nasty Nick had a point you were neighbours from hell.
And why is it so expensive? My kids can do this on their iPads so why does it cost thousands for you to do it?

My point is that in the complex world of the human brain, even a client that is really, really happy with you has these thoughts somewhere in their head. We’re all Nasty Nick somewhere in there.

Why does that help? Because there are very few absolutes in human interactions. We are all a variation of Schrödinger’s cat, which was alive and dead at the same time, except we are both nice and nasty at the same time.

If you want to really understand what is going on in your clients’ heads, and you do, because the better you understand them the better you can delight them with what you do, then be realistic about how they feel.

Here’s a simple tip. When your clients complain about anything, think Sybil Fawlty, and say “Oh I know.”


Even if they are complaining about you.

“It’s very expensive”
“Oh I know” (You don’t have to do the voice)

There is a really serious point here.

You don’t have to agree with someone to empathise with them.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy

As an aside to my main point, one of the few psychological techniques that I have found incredibly useful is Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. If you haven’t come across it, it isn’t a new-age-hippy idea, it is a simple technique which is particularly useful with things like noise.

CBT has a central idea which some people find hard to assimilate. The central idea is that what you think about things, your opinions, are really plastic and malleable.

It’s easiest to use noise as an example. Nasty Nick is sitting in his garden when next door kick up a racket. CBT says he now has a choice about how to think about that.

Either: That’s really annoying.
Or: isn’t the sound of kids playing a really comforting one that really means alls well with the world?

Take another example.

We moved into a house where we sleep under Velux windows in the loft. The first time it rained we realised how LOUD the rain was on the glass. But there is a choice.

Either: That’s so loud I’m never going to get to sleep
Or: Isn’t the sound of rain on glass really comforting? I’m here in the warm and I love it when its lashing outside and I’m warm in bed.

The difficult idea for some to take on board is that you can tell yourself what to feel. But you can. It does work.

Try this one. Your journey is delayed.

Either: That is incredibly annoying. What am I going to do. I hate this place. I’m angry and frustrated.
Or: Two hour delay. Excellent, a few moments peace in a hectic world. I’ll buy a paper and for once have a chance to read it. I might even turn my phone off.

Try it, it works.