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Two words prevent “shooting the messenger”

A fish-eye lens view of an irate woman shouting and pointing at the viewer

Executive summary: This is why people shoot the messenger – the messenger isn’t positioning the problem well. If you’ve ever gotten upset with a computer support person, you may have unfairly “shot the messenger”.

If you’re a technical person and someone has blamed you for things not working well, you may have unfairly gotten shot. Messengers often get shot. Their response? “Hey, why are you angry with me? I didn’t cause _______!”

– “Google does the GMail service, I didn’t make it run slowly on your computer!”

– “I told you this would take a while to reindex – why are you angry with me?”

– “I said you should have gotten the extended warranty!”

– “Remember when I told you that your computer wouldn’t get backed up if you turned it off at night?!”

Notice how uppety and defensive the messenger is getting? That’s because they are frustrated and feeling unfairly blamed. If you’re an IT person, how do you avoid this from happening? If you’re a customer, how do you avoid getting upset in the first place?

Pop quiz: who is more frustrated with technology, IT people or their customers? They have the same equipment, but one group is way more frustrated. The non-technical people are WAY more upset. The key to solving the “shot messenger syndrome” is understanding this distinction.

If you just had your computer upgraded to a new operating system, the person doing the work needs to set your expectations very carefully.

“You’re going to hate this for a few days.” “This is going to seem like a step backwards.” “Things aren’t going to be where you expect them to always be, that’s going to frustrate you.” “Some things may not work.”

And the most important two words to add? “THAT’S NORMAL.” – people often freak out because they think what’s happening isn’t right, isn’t supposed to happen. This is why IT people are rarely upset with their devices.

If you’re a computer person, you understand that a new operating system upgrade is going to break some old links, force some reindexing, slow the computer’s performance until the background processes are optimized, cause some application incompatibility, produce font rendering issues, remove some old functionality and consolidate it under new sections of the OS.

But you didn’t say that to the less-technical person. Because it’s technical. And it’s hard to explain. And you’re already running behind because the hard drive doing the data transfer ran slower than you anticipated. So you dash off a “let this run for a few hours before you do anything”. And you leave.

Is it any wonder you get a voicemail the next morning with “Hey, it’s me – thanks for helping yesterday but now the system is completely screwed up. I’m trying to get some work done and it’s running just unusuably slowly. I can’t do anything! HELP!”

The AAA guy says “drive slowly on this spare tire”. The waitress says “careful, this plate is hot”. Your doctor likely said “this is going to hurt a bit” or “you’re going to be sore for a couple of days after this vaccination” – they’re doing a bunch of things with that small statement: 1) they’re setting your expectations 2) they’re avoiding a panicked “what’s going on, is this normal?” phone call, and 3) they’re helping calm you so you know that what is about to happen is likely normal.

Maybe they turned the computer off so the remaining processes couldn’t finish. You DID tell them they must not TOUCH It for 12-14 hours, right?

Maybe they forgot the part about “it’s going to be slow” – you did ask them if they are VERY clear that it’s going to need time to get re-indexed, right?

Maybe they thought it was just going to be amazing like on the TV commercial. You did explain that this is like brain surgery and it is going to be some time before it’s up and back to normal, right?

Doctors and car rental companies have been sued so many times, they’ve figured out how to deal with improper expectation management. Doctors keep you in the hospital until you’ve PROVEN to them that you’re back to normal. Some car rental companies MAKE YOU watch them examine the car and initial in 4-6 places so that there is almost zero likelihood of you saying “I didn’t realize…” after the rental. Those systems have grown out of unfortunate and usually costly litigation. IT people, for the most part, experience almost none of this, so they aren’t compelled to be so careful.

Inexperienced IT folks will just blame the customer. Once you realize that they are blaming you for the wrong reasons, then you’ll learn that it’s part of your job to position your role more carefully.

One of the best phrases a customer will say to their technology consultant is “I know you said this would happen…” – this acknowledges that you were a) right to warn them b) accurate in predicting a potential downside, and c) likely to have just earned more of their trust as a result of the outcome.

“I’m not angry with you, you told me this might happen, I’m just frustrated with ____ (vendor/carrier/publisher)” – that’s how the messenger is supposed to get shot. You’ll know you’re at the top of your game when you have to do everything in your power to refrain from saying “I told you so.”


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