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How to be a Problem Solver

2009 August 7

A number of years ago, one of my early bosses in media showed me a process to solve problems with clients and partners.  It made sense at the time and in the years since it has never failed to be effective.  Later, I trained my own staff on the process and they have found similar success.  Through the years this process has been a guide for navigating through even the hairiest of situations.

I’ll describe the process below and I hope others will find it as effective as I have.

Listen and Empathize: We usually discover problems in the most unpleasant way:  We are going through our daily tasks and rituals, minding out own business and the phone rings.  On the other end of the line is a crazy person who is yelling so loud and talking so fast we don’t have the first idea what they are talking about.  There is a big problem and something must be done about it!

The first thing to do is listen and not interrupt.  The person on the other end of the line is furious and needs to unload.  Usually, they will get tired after a while and be ready to listen to you.  If not, they will hang up on you and you can all them back when they’ve had some time to cool down.  In either case, once they are ready to listen, you need to empathize and put yourself in their place.  How would you feel if the same thing had happened to you?

Manage Expectations: When your new friend has finished screaming at you, some immediate action they is going to be demanded .  This is the most dangerous time in the entire process.  DON’T ever promise anything in the initial conversation. (If you feel you have to, just make an excuse and get off the phone!)  What you do need to do is to get some basic information so that you can get to work on their problem.

This is when you want to start managing expectations.  Let your client know that their situation is very difficult and you can’t give any easy answers, but that you’re going to try to do your best to help them.   This is very hard to do emotionally because usually your client or partner is usually  so mad that they are going to want you to give them immediate gratification.  However, you can’t be nearly as stupid as the caller is saying that you are (from experience, I’ve determined that I’m no worse than average stupid) and the odds are that this isn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened  (even if you are being told it is).

Give them a time frame for when you expect to have an answer, get off the phone and move on to the next step!

Investigate: Now that you’ve gotten off the phone and nobody is screaming in your ear, you can actually find out what really happened.  Sometimes the problem isn’t as bad as it initially seemed.  Sometimes it’s much worse!  Either way you need to get a much fuller understanding of the situation before you can actually start to come up with solutions.

Middle Call: This is probably the most neglected step and probably the most important.  While you are working hard on solving the problem your friendly caller doesn’t hear from you and naturally assumes that you are doing nothing.  Pick up the phone and give them an update.  Even if it is just to say “I don’t have any answers yet, but I’ve taken these steps and we’ll se how it goes.”

Call as often as you can, over-communicate and make them see the process at work.  Although this can be uncomfortable, I can’t emphasize enough how important this step is.  Nobody is going to complain that you worked too hard on their problem.  So make sure that you are contacting your partner or client as much as humanly possible.  It works wonders.

Present options: Once you have thoroughly investigated the problem, you are ready to offer some solutions.  The best practice here is to present options.  One solution, even a great one, usually isn’t going to be accepted.  So add some more options even if they’re lousy.  I’ve actually been amazed how often people will choose the option that I had not only thought was the worst for them, but was also the easiest and cheapest to implement.  Moreover, offering options cuts down on their ability to negotiate something that you really don’t want to do.  So go ahead and add some options even if the result is something like this:

Option 1: We cut off your arms

Option 2: We cut off your legs

Option 3: We give you some really bad tasting medicine

Chances are, they’ll take the medicine, but you never know…  Also, make sure that you calmly walk through and explain each option and the process of coming up with them.

Follow up: After the solution has been implemented, check back and make sure everything is going okay.  You want to avoid secondary problems at all costs and this is a great way to prevent them.  If you’re lucky, your “phone buddy” might even give you some credit for helping.

Final Word: Your goal in all of this is to come up with the best solution possible given the circumstances, not to come up with a perfect solution.  Problems happen, that’s part of life and people usually understand that.  In the end, if the person on the other side can say “As bad as it was, I was happy that you were there to help,” you’ve done your job and done it well!

– Greg

57 Responses leave one →
  1. February 8, 2010

    I cannot agree more with the middle call. It is so important to let people know what is going on through the discovery process toward a resolution.

  2. February 8, 2010


    Yeah. There are very few easy tricks in business that actually work, but that’s one of ’em!

    – Greg

  3. February 24, 2010


    Just came across your post and the responses. Great information. As a performance improvement consultant your points are excellent. I have always utilized a problem solving technique from more quality mgmt toolbag such as problem cause analysis, pareto, interviewing, process definition and mapping, etc. to devise optimal solutions.

    Great information!

  4. February 24, 2010


    Thanks. It’s very kind of you to say so.

    – Greg

  5. Arun permalink
    August 15, 2010

    I just had this experience with PizzaHut in India. I complained about the quality of the pizza, and the guy at the other end did almost exactly what you’d mentioned here.

    The end was to my liking and am happy with it.

    Thanks for writing this. I have shared this with my twitter folks.

  6. August 15, 2010

    Thanks, Arun. Have a great week!

    – Greg

  7. Zakhele Hakonze permalink
    February 3, 2012

    Well taught …thank you truly

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