I recently attended a customer meeting with a client. The client’s customer was responsible for a major chunk of the client’s annual revenue, so my client brought six key staffers, including a recently hired engineer.
While he had scheduled the meeting as a project update, the CEO of the firm my client served saw it as an opportunity to throw his weight around. Even I could tell his complaints ranged from picky to irrelevant. But he didn’t care, as CEOs on tirades are wont to do.
People sat quietly and let him rage; I could tell from a few exchanged glances his behavior wasn’t new.
Then my client’s new engineer made a mistake.
The CEO was complaining about how a product didn’t conform to a specification. The engineer interrupted to say, “I understand what you are saying, but the product doesn’t conform to specifications because it exceeds your specifications.”
The CEO’s red face got even redder, and his eyes bulged even bigger. He stood and shouted, “You think you can tell me how to interpret my specs? My specs?” He snarled, “When I want your f—ing advice, I’ll ask for it.”
Then the CEO grabbed his chair with two hands, spun and flung it as hard as he could. It gouged the wall behind him, and bounced to the floor. One of his staffers immediately jumped up and moved his chair to the CEO’s place. (Possibly proper meeting etiquette holds that once someone throws a chair, he can no longer use it.)
I glanced at my client. What would he do? Would he get mad, walk out or ask for an apology?
He did none of the above.
My client waited a beat, and then calmly said, “What other concerns can we take care of?”
I was surprised he just moved on—but then I realized he wasn’t really moving on. He started nibbling around the edges of the CEO’s complaints, pushing back a little here, disagreeing a little there. The CEO grew more and more frustrated.
Finally, when my client said, “I’m not sure that’s quite accurate,” the CEO stood and said, “I had hoped this would be a productive meeting. I’m disappointed you’re not taking our concerns more seriously. Let’s reschedule this for a time when you can put my needs first.” Then he stomped out.
My client and I talked about the meeting afterward. “What made you decide not to say anything when he yelled at your engineer?” I asked.
“I wanted to,” he replied. “Our guy did nothing wrong. But if I had defended him, he still could have thought he did something wrong. Instead, I basically did the same thing he had done. The CEO treated me the same way. Now my guy knows he did nothing wrong.”
“But won’t your engineer wonder why you didn’t take his side?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” he said. “That’s why I’ll talk to him as soon as we get back to the office. But then we can have a discussion about customer relationships, meeting dynamics and dealing with conflict as equals since the customer got mad at both of us. Then he won’t be defensive because he wasn’t the only person who did something ‘wrong.'”
The question: Should my client have taken a stand in the meeting?
From his perspective, pushing back too hard in front of others may have pushed his customer over the edge. While his team might have appreciated the gesture, the repercussions could have been disastrous.
Instead, he decided to create a “conflict” of his own, proving the customer was a jerk. (Not that anyone needed proof, but still.) My client took a different stand, purposely drawing heat while indirectly supporting his engineer.
“You know,” my client said, “Who cares if the CEO threw a chair? It’s his furniture. As long as he doesn’t hit anybody, I don’t really care. It was actually kind of funny, and I guarantee our engineer will be dining out on that story for years. Plus, I can use this as an opportunity to help him develop, since now he can just focus on how to deal with difficult customers … instead of always wondering whether he was somehow in the wrong.”
It’s sound reasoning, and an interesting take on a complicated situation. But it’s not the only possible response. What would you have done?
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