The registration line’s too long."

"The room is too cold."

"I’m on a kosher, vegan, no-salt, low-fat, no-carb diet—I can’t believe you don’t have anything here I can eat."

Sound all-too-familiar? Every meeting’s got them, those lovely folks who just love to complain about everything from the plumpness of their pillows to the personal hygiene of the woman sitting next to them on the airplane.

Your mission is to deal with them so they’ll walk away happy—or at least not cursing you. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Consumer Affairs, only 9.5 percent of customers who don’t complain come back for more, as opposed to 70 percent of those who complain and get their problem resolved, and 46.2 percent who will stay with you if you give it your best shot and still can’t fix their problem.

Fortunately, as Connie Merritt, a Laguna Beach, Calif.–based registered nurse, speaker, coach, and author, told attendees at this year’s ICPA Educational Forum at the Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans, in July, there are many ways to reduce the stress of dealing with whiners. First, cut them out of the herd and take them somewhere quiet. Then ask them to tell you what’s wrong. Smile, keep your body open (don’t cross your arms), lean forward, touch the person very briefly on the forearm, maintain eye contact, and nod slowly as they go through their litany of complaints. And, as much as it hurts to do it, when they’ve finished, ask if there’s anything else. Then ask again.

Once they’ve gotten all their beefs out on the table, ask them what would have to happen to resolve their problems, and paraphrase it for them so they feel heard, said Merritt. Tell them what you will do to resolve their issues. It also helps to use what Merritt calls "fogging phrases," such as: "Hmmm, it’s possible, and … " "You could be right, and … " "That may be true, and … ." Make sure the phrase includes the word "and," not the "but" that would come much more naturally. And, of course, act to resolve their complaints. Sometimes all you have to do is acknowledge their pain and fix it ("I hate my room"). Sometimes you have to throw in an apology as well.

You just might find that the next time that person comes to you with a complaint, he or she will be a little less belligerent, and a little more reasonable. If not, at least you’ll know how to handle them. —Sue Pelletier

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