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The Right Resolution


When someone comes to you with a complaint, there are a few ways to deal with it.

One of them, basically, is to do nothing.

Another one is to punt.

The third way is to resolve it.

Let’s start from the beginning.

Someone comes to you with an issue. If this is face to face, you can talk it out quickly; if this is over email, however, this will take more time.

You ask them about the nature of the problem. Then you go back and forth with them about the precise details of the problem – and this is when you come across your first choice.

Some people rely on the delay in all our communications to put their questioner off. They take a long time to agree on the specifics of the problem; then (out of all proportion to the time spent on the previous step), they dash off a hasty and thoughtless recommendation; then, they go back to stalling mode, again relying on that delay to wear people out.

This is the bad way, realistically speaking.

So let’s say that you’re a responsible person, acting in good faith. You’re willing to help. You ask questions, enough to get the details, but without intentionally dragging it out. It may be a little frustrating for the person on the other end, who might not be able to tell the difference, but you know the difference, and you’re working with them, to sort it out.

Now you understand the problem, and from your unique vantage point, you know your options better than your questions ever could.

If it’s an easy solution, you spell it out. Problem solved.

If it isn’t, you’re faced with a couple of choices. One circles back to the first solution, by basically saying nothing is going to be done about this, sorry. It’s not a very nice way to resolve issues; in fact, it really isn’t a solution at all. It’s doing nothing, in a suit and tie.

The other option is to hack away at it. If someone has taken the time to identify something that’s a problem, and written a long description of it, it’s a fair bet that the solution doesn’t already exist (because if it did, they would have found it).

There’s often a real insight there into the way that you’re approaching the problem, and an opportunity to reframe it from a more helpful perspective. Some people choose to double down on their implementation and get defensive about it: my product, right or wrong; or if you have a problem here, maybe you’re the problem. That’s another way to address the issue. It’s also another bad one.

In my experience, most people who come to you with a complaint have identified a genuine issue. They’re not asking you to re-invent the Internet, or spoon-feed them a solution that costs hundreds of man-hours. They know what they want and they’d settle for a practical but imperfect solution, if they could find it.

If they haven’t solved it, it’s often because the documentation isn’t clear, or the UI is making assumptions you haven’t considered, or (just as likely) the UI is trying to force you into a choice that’s impractical or just too long-winded for their needs. At other times it just hasn’t been implemented, even though anyone who thinks about it from their perspective can immediately see the need. So they’re right, in a way, and they know it, and once you understand the issue, you do, too.

So you roll your shirtsleeves up, and you work to resolve it. Either you or your team get to work on a  solution, or you pass it on to people with the expertise to do it.

This takes commitment, and some plain dealing, too. It’s one thing to drop it into a bottomless wish-list bucket and say ‘it’s getting resolved,’ the working equivalent of a wish and a prayer. It’s something else to have a workflow that guarantees that people will see it and take appropriate action. People on the outside might not be able to tell the difference (not immediately), but you can.

You can choose to be part of a culture that makes the right choice here. Or you can blow people off, and hope that the number of people you blow off is small enough to not really matter, to not hurt your prospects. But of course, it does, and it will.

Some problems in life require complicated solutions. Other ones are fairly easy. This one is closer to the easy side: dealing plainly with people, taking the time to listen to their complaints, and then budgeting the time and the resources to address them.

Because people generally aren’t being unreasonable when they’re complaining; they’re trying to open your eyes to something you didn’t see, something that requires some higher-level help. You can be that help.

And if you decide to take that step, to help and not stonewall when called upon to deliver, you’ll find that it benefits you, also. Because shooting the messenger doesn’t make the message go away. Acting on the message, does.


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