Woman yelling angrily into cell phone

We’ve Become Bad Customers

10 Simple Steps To Help Us Ask Better For Things

I keep hearing more and more examples of people leaving their jobs because their customers are difficult - yikes. Read that again...people are leaving their jobs because their customers are so difficult to deal with. That’s not a leadership problem; that’s not an organizational culture problem; that’s a “we’ve become bad customers” problem. 

One of the things that is quick to bring out the best (or worst!) in others is how we handle it as a customer when we don’t get what we want, or when we don’t get what we want fast enough. 

I’m not sure if we’ve gotten used to being able to be mean behind keyboards and the scathing “safety” of social media, or if we’re really becoming more entitled as customers. Perhaps it’s neither of those, and we’ve just forgotten how to be nice (or patient, or gracious) because of the constant stress of the past 18 months. 

Whatever the cause, may I offer a few steps towards a better way?

Perhaps if, as customers (internal customers or external customers), we ask better for things, we’ll find that we are more likely to get what we are asking for, and at the same time, we can help others have better workdays.

So here they are, 10 simple steps to help us ask better for things. 10 steps that will help increase the likelihood we get what we want...without ruining someone else’s day.


1-Be specific and clear about what you’re asking for.

Whether you’re asking for a document or an artifact, a little help, a little grace, or a pizza with extra cheese, the clearer we are about what we want, the easier it will be for someone to provide that for us. I’d like “something to eat” is not nearly as specific as “a small, thin-crust pizza with extra cheese, a little light on the sauce, please”. I’d like “to meet with you to talk through your expectations on xyz to make sure we’re on the same page” is way more specific than “to have a chance to chat”. By being specific, we can help the other person know what we want or need.


2-Take the time to articulate succinctly why you need it.

If you need something so that you can complete your own deliverables, or you need something to stop the basement sink from dripping, or an answer to a given question so that you can move on to what’s next, that will certainly help the person you’re asking understand how and when to prioritize the ask you’ve given them. “Light on the sauce because I’m mildly allergic to tomatoes” is clearer than “not too much sauce, please.”


3-Provide a deadline or an ideal target date.

Especially if you’re asking via email or voice mail, or even text, it’s highly possible that the person you’re asking isn’t just sitting around waiting for your ask. They’re in the midst of their own busy life with their own challenges, their own deliverables, and their own workload, and they have to prioritize work, just as you do. If you provide a due date or a target completion date, they can either help meet that or at least raise their hand to say that date isn’t possible.


4-Get buy-in on whether or not the request is clear, reasonable, and realistic.

Since holding someone else accountable to expectations that they haven't agreed to is pretty much an exercise in futility, a better approach is to exchange information with the person you’re asking for something, to find out if the request is understood, if it fits within the relationship that the two of you have, and if it’s grounded in reality. If any of these are not true, you’ve got the opportunity to fix it.  Taking the time to get the buy-in up front will increase the likelihood they'll do it, and as a bonus, you'll come across as more collaborative, reasonable, and generally nicer as a human.


5-Share a gentle reminder a bit ahead of when you need it.

Let’s say you’ve asked for something by the 22nd. Instead of reminding the other person that you need it by the 22nd on the 22nd, (or worse yet, on the 23rd!) maybe giving them a few days’ notice on the reminder would be helpful. Just this past week, I had a colleague who reminded me on Monday that she needed something from me that was due by that upcoming Friday, which gave me a chance to schedule the appropriate work in time enough to get it done within the deadline.  If the reminder had come in on Friday for a Friday deadline, it would have been harder to meet.


6-Leave yourself room to give a little grace.

Don’t we all need a little grace? You’ve probably figured out by now that different people have different relationships with time. Some folks do stuff wildly in advance, some a little bit each day until it’s done, and others at the last minute. None of these is inherently bad, but if we’re not clear on what we need, the friction with others who have a different relationship with time than our own can be unpleasant. If you need something from someone else to complete something on your own, when you give them a deadline, don’t give them a deadline that is already the last possible minute; instead, give them a deadline that lets you let them have an extra day or so if they need it.


7-Consider their present.

Getting back to the idea raised in step #4 above about getting buy-in on how feasible and reasonable the request is, this one goes one step further and causes you to stop and think about the other person. Are you reaching out during their regular working hours for something that is work related? Have they already told you that there is something keeping them away from their desk or an unusually heavy workload? Are there visibly a dozen people in line in front of you? Is the person you’re talking to also human and therefore subject to tough days just like the rest of us? When you go to ask (especially if you’re asking ‘again’) for the thing, take 30 seconds and put yourself in their shoes for just a moment. 


8-If you didn’t get it, try honey not vinegar.

Okay, let’s say for a moment that despite everything you did in steps 1-7, you still don’t have what you were looking for. In a perfect world, that’s not the case, but I think we can safely agree that this is not a perfect world. Let’s say that you do have to ask again, and now it’s uncomfortable for you. This is admittedly a bummer of a place to be, but it’s still one we can handle with grace. There are turns of phrase you can use to say “I was hoping” or “I was thinking I would see…” or “I don’t think I’ve seen…” or “I wanted to follow up on….” that can be safe, “I” statements rather than accusatory “you” statements. The old adage that we catch more flies with honey than vinegar means that we’re more likely to get a favorable reply from “how can I help get this solved” than “you are late” or “you blew it” or “you let me down”. 


9-Escalate [only] when necessary.

Sometimes, the person you’ve asked for something is in over their head or simply not able to get you what you want. Maybe they’re buried in an inbox they can’t get to. Maybe they lack the skills or the information to do it. Maybe they’re pulled in so many directions that they simply can’t get to the thing you’ve asked of them. If you need to escalate, then escalate. I’m not advocating for sitting by and letting deadlines get missed or allowing folks to be less than accountable for their work. Yes, by all means, if you’ve tried steps 1-8 and you need help, escalate to the appropriate person, and take a couple of seconds to bring them through the journey of what you’ve tried so far. Now that you’re asking someone new, you may have to go back through the first few steps again. 


10-Reflect/review/adjust [together] for how to approach it next time.

If you got what you wanted, when you wanted it, then take a second to reflect on what you did so you can do that again when the situation arises again. If you didn’t get what you wanted, or you got it, but you got it later than you were comfortable with, then take a second to reflect on what you did so you can adjust and try a different approach next time. Maybe you found that an email request worked, but a phone call didn’t. Maybe you found that using certain specificity around your request and including the timeline got a faster, better response than something vague. Make a note, and apply it for next time.


Bonus: If you did get it, say thanks.

Here’s one last thought. Regardless of the asking process, if at the end of the day, you got what you wanted, then take a moment to say ‘thank you’ to the person who provided it. That will go a long way towards increasing their desire to help you next time!


So there you have it - 10 Simple Steps To Help Us Ask Better For Things. We’d love to hear from you! Let us know if any of these work for you by leaving us a comment or sharing on social media! 


Topics: YP, Sinikka Waugh, Communication & Collaboration

Sinikka Waugh

About the Author

Sinikka Waugh

Sinikka Waugh is a recognized leader in understanding people and in adapting tools, techniques, and processes to meet the demands of the situation at hand. Since 2006, Sinikka has provided compassionate leadership in transformation initiatives. When she isn’t in front of a class, she enjoys putting her background in English and French Literature to work, by writing blogs about the subjects she teaches every day. Are you ready? If you are, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us! contactus@yourclearnextstep.com


Receive a weekly dose of inspiration in your inbox by signing up for our weekly newsletter