The $30 Phone Bill That Forever Changed How I Handled Conflict

After a few weeks of training I was finally transitioning to the “floor.” Oh yes, … the floor.

The floor was where we made money. As a “sales consultant” for one the largest technological companies, my job was simple in theory. All I had to do was push products on the sales floor and make the company money (which in turn makes me money).

I grabbed my iPad from the back and swung open the door. I glanced up at our T.V. screen which had a list of people waiting for a representative. I approached the next customer who we’ll call Bob for this story.

I approached Bob. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous – this was my first customer interaction on the clock after a few weeks.

“Hey Bob, my name’s Matt – how can I help you today?”

“You idiots went up on my phone bill from $29.43 to $30.02.”

“Okay! Let me check that out for you.”

“Hurry up. I’ve been here for 10 minutes. You people are always so slow.”

The next 30 minutes was eventful. His increased charges were due to a government telecommunication tax that effected everyone who owns a cell phone.

I explained this to him in detail, but he wasn’t satisfied. My patience quickly wore off as I glanced over his account and noticed he had $125 of bill credits every month because he was an “accelerated customer” (he complained a lot).

I looked at Bob and said, “You know, most people pay $150-200 a month for a plan like yours. You should be grateful to pay $30! That’s not normal today.”

Apparently, I misspoke. Bob cussed me out for being arrogant and rude. He proceeded to tell me he saw a phone online he can pay $10 a month for and have unlimited data. Being facetious and knowing he had no idea what he was talking about, I fake smiled and said in a condescending tone – “Man, that sounds great. You should totally do it!

Bob caused a scene, left our store, and despite much chuckling coming from my peers who heard the whole exchange I quickly found myself in a meeting with our manager.

At this point in my life, I had recently transitioned from a full-time ministry job. I wasn’t all that likeable as a person and, in fact, I hated people (for the most part). I handled this situation of conflict just like I would at my previous job.

I arrogantly told an individual they were wrong and waited for them to get over it. Yeah, that’s not ideal in life – or you know, in a church setting. I chalked up my conflict resolution skills from my upbringing – “I’m from Boston. We’re all rude.”

Let’s be transparent here. I still do believe I was right most of the time, but my approach was off. My pastor frequently says this – “You can tell me anything, you just have to approach it the right way.”

On the first day on the floor, I was brought down to the reality that the way I handled conflict was deeply flawed.

Although a sales consultant by title, my job could be better defined as a “damage control specialist.” For 385 days straight, I dealt with people who walked into our store with a bad attitude. I would estimate that at least 80 percent of my customers came in with a problem.

My job was to fix the problem AND sell them new products. (I learned to do one and not the other… sorry Blaine)

Conflict is not a respecter of persons. We can’t hide from conflict. Conflict will find us wherever we go. According to “Workplace Conflict and How Businesses Can Harness It to Thrive,” 85 percent of people in the workforce deal with conflict. Almost half (49%) of conflicted situations happen because of personality clashes.

I would suggest from this statistic that there are three types of people in this world:

1.     People who try to run from conflict

2.     People who handle conflict poorly

3.     People who thrive in situations of conflict

Where do you fit in?

In one year, I turned conflict resolution from a glaring weakness to a strength in my personal conversations. Let’s talk about a few ways how my previous company helped me get there.

If you’re person No. 1 or No. 2, I hope these are encouraging insights that offer a glimpse of hope to which you (like I did) can improve in this area. Person No. 3 – you know you got it going on, but let’s see if you can learn a strategy that helps you get even more refined at handling conflict.

1. I couldn’t hide from conflict anymore.

I loved evading conflict. In the church world, it’s easy. You can say hyper-spiritual phrases to push conflict. I’ve said things like,

“Let me pray about it.”

“You should pray about it.”

“We should pray about it.”

“I haven’t heard from God yet about it.”

"Now isn't the season for it."

If those wouldn’t work, I just used the busyness of work to push meetings and avoid any direct contact. I even tried new ministry activities to be passive-aggressive about the conflict.

You guessed it – those never worked. But, man, it was easy to avoid it. Like all great things – they come to an end.

Personal conflict eventually rose, which led me to an anger outburst at a youth students’ parent, a heated exchange with a church elder, and a vibrant “us against the world” speech at business meeting when everyone voiced disagreements about changes in the church.

At my new job, I couldn’t mutter those spiritual delays. Instead, I stood by the door waiting for a new customer to walk in knowing they would likely be angry at our company. I couldn’t hide in the back, I had to stare directly at conflict to bring home a paycheck.

To survive, I had to change. At my church, I knew I could play this game and get a paycheck every week. As a sales consultant that would not fly.

What escape method’s do you have to avoid conflict? Write them down. Are they healthy? Are they working?

You may work in an environment where you can hide from conflict, but if you don’t handle the situation, it will escalade so rapidly you, or someone else, will not go unharmed from it.

2. I came to acknowledge and listen first.

I’d categorize myself as a problem-solver. When I hear a problem, I’m immediately thinking of ways to fix it.

This doesn’t work in healthy conflict resolution. When I was approached with a situation at my previous church, I would get the nuts and bolts of the problem and solve the issue. If the individual didn’t use my suggestion – I would call them out for it.

I never took personal feelings with a situation. It’s almost as if everything was black and white. I remember a situation where a ministry leader was upset the youth ministry was on the same night of his program.

I told him “tough luck they must not like your program if they don’t attend” and ended the conversation. I never acknowledged the fact that he was genuinely concerned or even reasoned the issue with him.

I tried this same method with Bob – do you remember how that worked out?

People want to be heard. While the problem may seem insignificant to us, to them it’s a very real thing. In some cases, they’ve been effected by it for a while. When people complained about their phone bill, it was a real issue for them.

So, I started listening and acknowledging. I put myself in their shoes.

“I wouldn’t enjoy my bill increasing either.”

“I’d be frustrated too if my new phone just broke.”

“It is a pain when you don’t know how to download an app.”

One woman had to spend $1,100 on new phones because she didn’t get insurance on her broken phones two months prior. Because I took the time to listen and acknowledge her situation as a real-life issue, I created a positive relationship.

She left her time with me having just spent an additional $1,100 (out of necessity), but she gave me a 10 out of 10 rating. I’ll never forget what she said:

“Matt made my awful situation better. I know he’s a sales person, but he made me feel like everything was going to be okay. I strongly recommend working with him and I will always go back and see him.”

People want to know you care. It starts with acknowledging and listening, not minimizing their problem and coming up with an immediate solution that only benefits one side.

3. I never took the outcomes personal.

Despite your efforts, you will never make everyone happy. In fact, some people will flat out never like you.

I used to take everything personally. This meant that if we had a disagreement there was a good chance we would never be close.

This reached its head on one Sunday. I pulled up to church and not one person welcomed me. They walked by me like I was invisible. Why? I had disconnected myself from any relationship where there was past conflict or disagreements.

In other words, I didn’t have hardly any friends.

Throughout my year as the “damage control specialist” I was regularly cussed at. I found that people love to say hurtful things. In one instance, I spent two hours helping a couple fix their phone issues. After immediate name-callings, they calmed down, and I thought we were making progress.

In the end after personal conversations and an uplifting atmosphere – my manager wouldn’t let me credit their bill $5.00. The switch flipped, and they started cussing me out again.

I walked them to the door, and the gentleman flipped me off. The next Sunday at church, I went up to speak. Guess who I locked eyes with? This couple.

After service, they walked by me like they never saw me before. The truth is, they truly didn’t recognize me.

At this moment, in time, I had encountered these people on a bad day. Jesus Himself could have been standing in front of them, and they would’ve likely argued with Him about the $5.00.

It wasn’t personal.

People will get upset with you. People will leave your organization. People will even say and post hurtful things about you or your company. It may initially sting, but we’ve got to build enough emotional stability to not be phased.

 Years later and that conversation with Bob seems like a distant memory. I never could figure out how to sell anything – I was always the lowest in our store. But, I did learn how to handle conflict.

At one point, I was the top-rated employee in WTR (Willingness to Recommend) from our customers in our entire region. It led to some great opportunities, including the task to train our stores employees on how I achieved that.

Those attributes and learned behaviors naturally progressed to my second-stint working in a church. While the “why” behind the conflict is a little different (leaders in our church typically don’t complain about a phone bill) the “how” still applies.

I don’t care how fast you are. We will never be able to outrun conflict. There is hope though. We can simply find a solution to handle it better.

Stare at conflict directly in the face – make the effort to acknowledge and listen first – and when things don’t go as planned, don’t take it personal.