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Andra Madea, author of Conflict Unraveled: Fixing Problems at Work and in Families, highlights several ways in which customers may be difficult to work with. So doing, she describes the behaviors and characters of what she terms "flooding people" — people who are overwhelmed and at wit's end.

  • They don't follow simple directions. Under a flood of adrenaline, the brain loses its ability to do sequence. That means steps one, two and three can become a hopeless jumble. If you tell them to walk down the hall, take a right and go in the green door they may get lost at the first turn. Go with them and show them the way.
  • They snap at you when you're only trying to help. Flooding people are edgy and get hostile around jargon or unfamiliar words. Think of the last time you had a computer problem and the techie started spouting geek. Wanted to kill him, right? Keep your words short and simple.
  • They ignore signs and directions right under their noses. With too much adrenaline the brain loses its ability to pick out key objects. You've done this yourself. You're dashing out the door and suddenly you can't find your keys. You tear the place apart only to realize they're sitting right in front of you. This is how a customer manages to not see the warning on the back of the box, or the sign in plain English posted in the hall. Just point it out and they'll be fine.
  • They ramble on and bring in every problem since the Reagan administration. It's the problem with sequence again. They can no longer tell whats on topic and what's off. Youll need to walk them through it: Ask "What happened first? What happened next?" As they step through the sequence they're likely to grow coherent again.
  • They don't listen to a thing you say. Flooding people lose their ability to hear new information. They're not ignoring you; that part of the brain gets disconnected and they literally can't take in your words. Talk slowly and calmly to help them come down. Draw them a simple map or diagram while talking them through the stages. If they can't remember what you said at least they can look at the map.
  • They argue even when you agree with them. Remember, they may not be able to hear what you said. You could offer them a free trip to China — it won't matter if they can't hear you. Instead ask simple sequence questions until they calm down. Then make your offer and they'll probably accept.
  • They make you as frazzled as they are. Flooding is contagious. That means even as they're telling that rambling story, you're losing your ability to listen to it. However, calm is also contagious. Keep breathing, keep your voice low and steady, and you can bring them around to you.

What have you learned about working with customers — and colleagues — who are "up to here" with frustration?