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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. August 12, 2009

    Excellent advice. I’ve heard a lot of screaming in my day, too.

  2. August 12, 2009

    I agree that your “Middle Call” step is both the most important and most negelcted. In fact, I would even extand the application by noting that I will call someone – or eMail them – every six months just because we haven’t communicated for six months. Even if it’s just an unintrusive “Hello. Howz things with you?” event, it puts you back on their front burner.

    Both Act! and Outlook can be set up to prompt you when it’s time to make that re-connect. For actual projects, MSProject can be set up to make sure Middle Calls get done. (And, I suspect other project management programs will do it, too.)

    Jim P.

  3. August 12, 2009


    Good points. Thanks for your comment.

    – Greg

  4. Robbin permalink
    August 13, 2009

    Thanks for the great advice. Especially like the middle call and alternative solutions. While implied, it’s also important to be calm. Two excited people simply does not work.

  5. August 13, 2009

    Thanks for saying so, Robin.

    – Greg

  6. Shah Rizvi permalink
    August 15, 2009

    Great Blog,

    I would concur with the comments that you should follow up as much as possible, and after the problem is solved you can ask for other people to talk to within the organization to increase your company/product’s exposure or for referrals to other companies. This can be a building block to strengthening your position at the client and increasing your sales.

  7. August 15, 2009


    It’s a great point. Often customers don’t remember the problem, just how it was solved.

    – Greg

  8. September 7, 2009


    Nicely done. Your post captures all the steps of a well executed problem solving engagement. What I noticed also is that there is a common thread that runs through every step of the process: effective communication. Wouldnt you agree that as you interact with anyone who calls on you for help, your ability to collect and transfer information with them is critical to timely problem resolution and high levels of satisfaction? Details of the problem, expectations, timing, empathy and follow through all play a critical role in an excellent customer service experience. If we make it a priority to strengthen our communication skills and apply them in a consistent manner we will have lots more happy customers.

    Don F Perkins

  9. September 8, 2009


    Yes, I would agree. Thanks!

    – Greg

  10. September 9, 2009


    Simple, common sense approaches are best and yours is right on target. It surprises the large number of managers and sales staff that don’t make the middle call. Heading checks are always welcome and my saying is “phone calls are cheap”. I have found the middle all a good way to get additional information from the client on the issue at hand after the dust has settled.


  11. September 9, 2009


    Thanks. Good points.

    – Greg

  12. Sudhir Deva permalink
    September 11, 2009

    Hi Greg

    Creating and keeping options (in plural) handy before the Middle Call is a great way to pacify an irate caller.


  13. September 11, 2009


    It really depends on the nature of the relationship. If it is a short term service situation, getting to options more quickly makes a lot of sense. If the problem is more complicated, you’re better off waiting until you know what’s going on or you run the risk of running into secondary problems.

    – Greg

  14. gertrude huber permalink
    September 13, 2009


    It is a pleasure reading you while I keep current and progressive via Internet. In this post you’ve brought up points that are vital not only in terms of business but every day life as well.

    LCIFOR = Listening, Communication, Investigation, Follow up, Options, Resolution

    Till next time,


  15. September 13, 2009


    Thank you very much, nice acronym!


    – Greg

  16. kelly permalink
    September 16, 2009

    Thanks for your share ,Greg.
    your advise is great!

  17. September 16, 2009

    I’m glad to hear it Kelly!

    – Greg

  18. September 16, 2009

    Deginitely some sound advice here – and well supplemented by you other commentators.

    My cent’s worth revolves around your statement to never promise anything during that first call. I agree with the principle and thinking here, but feel it would be better to suggest that the ONLY promise you can and should make during that initial conversation is to find out more and get back to them. It is implicit in everything else you say, but needs to be spelled out specically – and of course followed up.

  19. September 16, 2009


    Good point. Thanks!

    – Greg

  20. Janice Hyde permalink
    September 16, 2009

    Communicate, communicate, communicate…

  21. Joni Fisher permalink
    September 30, 2009

    I, too, learned this same advice early in my career. I, too, have gained loyal and gracious clients who have stood by me based on this process. The key in this equation is EMPATHY, many times the disgruntled “Partner” just needs to be heard! Through listening, empathizing, communication and the presentation of options – the client can’t help but refer you to others based on the respect you have shown in doing the “right thing”. F. O. S. A….. Facts, Observation, Solutions, Action!

    Joni Fisher, CSP
    Fisher Search Group

  22. September 30, 2009


    Good point about empathy. Thanks!

    – Greg

  23. October 2, 2009

    Those are great words. It’s good to have a reminder that 90% of handling a bad situation lies in our reactions. I’ve written about that before. In dealing with the client that process of damage control helps alleviate some of that stress.


  24. October 5, 2009

    That’s right. They have a right to scream, and you have a duty to listen. More important, you are obliged to take appropriate action to resolve their problem. However, at times the other person does not have the right to make an unreasonable demand or have an unrealistic expectation. In those cases, you have a duty to sort them out.
    It is all explained here:

  25. October 5, 2009

    Thanks, Lionel.

    – Greg

  26. October 5, 2009


    Thanks. Good point about our reactions. You’re right. I would also add that half of the battle is having confidence that you can actually help. I think that a lot of people react badly because they feel helpless to resolve the situation.

    – Greg

  27. Amita Karwal permalink
    October 8, 2009

    Simple and handy tips . Managing expectation and the middle call are the most important steps. Irate clients need attention which we need to offer in a systematic and calm manner. Actually staying calm and open channel of communication is the key to the whole process.

  28. October 8, 2009


    Thanks. I’m glad you liked it.

    – Greg

  29. October 10, 2009

    Found this article very useful. The point about investigating before committing is very valid. I had a few painful failures in that step. Learnt the hard way.

  30. October 10, 2009


    I’ve had a few painful failures myself.;-)) I’m glad you found the article useful.

    – Greg

  31. October 19, 2009

    So glad I saw your enticing post on LinkedIn! This is gold!

    Christine Elisabeth Hueber

  32. October 19, 2009


    Thx. I’m glad you liked it.

    Come back again soon!

    – Greg

  33. Natalie Zhao permalink
    October 23, 2009

    Useful tips, Greg. Sometimes when a crisis pops up, I get bombarded with several “friendly callers'” scream and overwhelmed: too many cooks in the kitchen. Even on client’s part there are people with different standpoints/focus on the issue. You need to address each of their priorities, if you know what i mean. The client party has some inner struggles and want you to treat his/her problem first!

  34. October 23, 2009


    It’s a good point. This is a good reason why it’s a bad idea to give quick solutions.

    – Greg

  35. November 4, 2009

    Hi Greg,
    another great article, right to the point thanks.

    The middle call(s) is a key element in the process of building back respect and recognition, useful attributes to be attached to your company’s name and yours.

    And once the solution has been found and implemented, a little celebration can be organized (in-situ, per phone, video etc please not email) and that opens the door for the next question “dear xyz, I am so glad …now I would appreciate if you could help me in this matter….”. Works 75% of the time. The rest 25% will tell you that they paid for what they got and etc.

    Last point: make sure your employees are trained to the process, and make sure that the business processes are designed to encourage the reporting of unhappy customers, and the treatment of complaints. Having an ISO certification helps, and an open company culture even more: otherwise you end-up having people hiding issues from management, trying to solve them on their own, ending up pointing at each other, and in the process the customer is forgotten. I speak from experience and I believe there might be an important cultural factor in this behavior.


  36. November 4, 2009


    Great points! Thanks for your input.

    – Greg

  37. Deepika permalink
    November 7, 2009

    Hi Greg,

    Very interesting article!
    Key points like : DON’T ever promise anything in the initial conversation and the middle call are really gr8. Smart way to handle difficult situations which are common in every one’s life.


  38. November 7, 2009


    Thanks. I’m glad you liked it.

    – Greg

  39. Ashwin Panemangalore permalink
    November 7, 2009

    The Investigate step is crucial to providing a correct solution especially when its a performance problem with repeat failure and not a simple service or response time situation Adopting a root cause analysis technique with a cool investigative mind is best, notwithstanding the pressure.One has to be politely relentless while persuing this

  40. November 7, 2009


    Good point. The solution has to actually fix the problem.

    – Greg

  41. November 11, 2009

    Another great post Greg;
    I think your process makes perfect sense, and all these comments prove its worth. About the only thing I can think of to add, is that I think we’re all focused on the phone because when we’re hopping mad about something, we want to talk to someone and get an answer NOW. So we dial and yell.
    But what about situations where the customer is angry or hassled by something, but not angry enough to pick up the phone? In these cases, they may fire off an email, or visit a forum online, or write a blog or comment on one in the general social media space.
    This excellent process would work just as well via these written forms of communication, not so? And while we’re thinking about that, I’ll add that sometimes these same written formats lend themselves to being predictors of customer mood in such a way that – provided we’re listening, of course – we can leap in and defuse the situation before the client gets mad enough to dial and yell.

  42. November 12, 2009


    Good point. Problems aren’t exclusive to the phone and the “middle call” (or e-mail) doesn’t necessarily have to be exclusive to problem solving. It’s also a great way to uncover problems.

    – Greg

  43. Manish Naik permalink
    December 11, 2009

    Excellent article.An apt Problem solving approach. I think as a sales person we have to generate confidence in customer/partner’s mind that we are working for their benifit & fighting their battle at the same time ensuring our employer’s benifits.
    Once the customer gets confident in you, he will rely upon you for all his future needs.

  44. December 11, 2009


    Good point about confidence building.


    – Greg

  45. Prakash permalink
    December 15, 2009

    Hi Greg,

    Excellent article. Though it is applicable to everyone, it is a must read for those in the service industry.

    The middle call and presenting options are the best suggestions which most of us miss out on.

    Once we solve the problem the, same person who had yelled at us may even become a good friend. ( Personal Experience)


  46. December 15, 2009


    Good points. Thanks for your input.

    – Greg

  47. Diana Varisova permalink
    January 9, 2010

    thank you for the article.

    It was interesting for me to know about ‘Middle Call Step’, now I understand that it’s really important. And if it happens that I’ll be in such kind of situation I’ll try not to forget about it.

  48. January 10, 2010


    Thanks, I’m glad it was helpful.

    – Greg

  49. Barbara Dinsdale permalink
    January 16, 2010

    I do apologise, I’ve just inadvertently given your post a thumbs down and didn’t mean to! I also gave it a thumbs up but I’m not sure it will have been recorded. Sorry

  50. January 16, 2010


    No problem. It’s the thought that counts:-)

    – Greg

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