When an irate client called to complain that a paper clip wasn’t removed during cleaning, Sandra Gardner knew there was more to the complaint than met the eye.

“In this business, a paper clip isn’t just a paper clip,” says Gardner, owner of Final Touch Cleaning,Tulsa, Okla. In fact, Gardner discovered that the customer had hidden the paper clip two weeks earlier. When it wasn’t removed, he questioned her company’s dedication.

Although the client was obviously being difficult, Gardner resisted the urge to go on the defensive. Instead, she listened to his complaint, apologized for the problem, assured him she’d resolve the issue and then followed through on that promise.

Dealing with a difficult person isn’t easy, but there are ways to make the interaction more positive.

What makes someone difficult?
There probably are only two things you know for sure about difficult people — you know them when you see them and you are never one of them. While the latter may not be entirely true, the former is dead on. A difficult person, experts say, is someone who pushes your buttons and brings out the worst in you.

There are plenty of personality types that can be hard to handle, and you’ve probably seen them all. There are the “know-it-all” customers who think they know cleaning better than you do; the negativists, on the other hand, believe it will never work. Especially difficult is the “Time Bomb,” who gets upset easily and uses in-your-face arguments as a weapon, says Diane Eade, a corporate trainer and former executive from S.C. Johnson Wax.

In an argument, a Time Bomb may make hurtful accusations and assumptions. The most important — and most difficult — thing you must do is put aside your personal feelings. You cannot change another person’s behavior, but you can control your reaction to it.

“By the time they call me, it’s usually not about cleaning — they are already in a bad mood. They can’t yell at their employees, but they sure can yell at their janitor,” Gardner says. “I simply refuse to be unhappy just because they are having a bad day.”

When you empathize with their frustration, you’re less likely to lose your cool. In fact, you may even find yourself being kinder when you feel sorry for them. If it helps, try to imagine what could have gotten them so upset, says corporate trainer Joy Baldridge, author of The Fast Forward MBA In Selling (John Wiley & Sons, 1999). Perhaps they woke up late, got stuck in traffic, had a flat tire, and then missed an important meeting before they called you.

Also, don’t ask yourself “why” questions, such as “Why is he acting like this?” Instead, ask “what” and “how” questions, which get better answers and results. For example, ask yourself “What is he angry about and how can I fix it?” This approach makes you part of the solution. The goal is keep the problem on one side with you and the customer on the other side working together to resolve it, Baldridge says.

Be a good listener
When confronted by an angry client or employee, hear him out and don’t get defensive. Antagonizing people just gives them ammunition to get angrier, says Robert Garcia, general manager of Empire Maintenance in Alhambra, Calif.

Don’t just sit idly as he or she vents; be an active listener. Repeat the person’s concerns, but don’t use a sarcastic or defensive tone. Sometimes hearing his own words is enough for a person to realize he’s being difficult. Also, use anger-defraying phrases such as “This must be frustrating for you,” or apologize, suggests Baldridge.

Humor also can help. When a client complained about a dead cockroach that had been in the corner of her office for a month, Gardner joked that it might be time to charge the bug rent. The joke eased the tension and led to a more pleasant and useful discussion about the problem.

There are times, however, when it is a good idea to walk away from an angry person. If you feel abused by a belligerent person who is screaming and swearing, Baldridge suggests saying “I want to help you, but not like this.” End the conversation for half an hour, during which time you can both calm down and refocus.

Do something
Once clients get everything off their chest, it’s time to say or do something to make them feel better.

“Sometimes a person just wants a commitment that the problem won’t happen again,” Baldridge says.

Whether you simply promise to do better next time or you agree to redo the job immediately, follow through. The worst thing that can happen now is to over-promise and under-deliver. If handled correctly, however, the situation can actually improve your relationship with the client.

“Some of your best customers can come from a horrendous situation,” Baldridge says. “When something goes wrong, that is your time to shine and show the customer that they are important to you.”

A common and unfortunate mistake is to simply disregard an angry complaint as exaggerated or misplaced frustration. Try to look at every situation as an opportunity for business growth. Evaluate complaints to see if they are symptomatic of a larger, company-wide problem, such as a communication breakdown.

“These problems make us ask ourselves if we’ve been paying enough attention to our customers,” says Garcia. “We may go out and do a quality control visit or an inspection of the facility. Those efforts can head off these problems in the future.”

Whatever you do, you have to mean it. It isn’t enough to pretend to care about a client’s problem or feelings.

“You can’t be a sincere phony,” Gardner says. “It doesn’t work; people see through it immediately.”

Becky Mollenkamp is a business writer based in Des Moines, Iowa.

When A Difficult Employee Fights Change
Customers aren’t the only difficult people; your employees can be trying, too, especially when it comes to change. Unfortunately, without change, your business would become outdated, stagnant, ineffective and you'd lose market share to the competition. So how can you stay fresh without losing your change-shy employees?

• Explain it.

New ideas can be scary, especially for an employee who's done something the same way for years. Take time to tell your employees why things need to change.

"The worst thing you can do is say 'It's my way or the highway' because a lot of times they'll take the highway," says corporate trainer Diane Eade.

• Get buy-in.

Your employees may actually support the change if they feel like they're an integral part of the decision. Ask them for suggestions about how to best address the issue at hand. You may be surprised how often they suggest exactly what you had in mind, says Joy Baldridge, an author and trainer.

• Say thanks.

Reward your employees for their ideas. Most importantly, keep them as involved as possible in implementing the change. The more ownership they feel, the more likely they are to embrace the change.