How to Handle Customer Feedback When You Disagree: I'm not rude!

Dear Office Mom,
My manager gave me some feedback last week, and I’m having a hard time processing it. Apparently a customer complained that I had been rude. Another customer complained last month. My manager said she knows that I’m direct and sometimes seem unapproachable around the office. I don’t socialize much at work. I come in and focus on my job. But I don’t think I’m a rude person. I’m polite, and I respect others. She wants me to think about the customer’s perception and we’re going to talk about it in our next 1-on-1. Do you have any suggestions for me?
— Sam

Dear Sam,

It may be hard to wrap your brain around this and you may not agree with it, but if people think you're rude, you are.  It’s their perception, and that’s what counts. Your perception of you doesn’t matter. Only theirs. Pile on that you're too direct and unapproachable at the office and you've got a problem. Somewhere you're intention to be polite and respectful to others is awry and you need to find out why. I suspect this isn't the first time you've heard this kind of feedback. 

Chances are you're under the false assumption that everyone values the same thing you do - being efficient and getting shit done. That’s not the case. You’re so absorbed in your work (like I was years ago) that you’re not paying attention to people (task orientation vs. people orientation). Yes, you're polite and respectful but ever so efficiently as you're performing tasks and checking things off your To-Do list.  You likely find socializing at work a waste of time. You want meetings to start on time, dammit. You don't care what anyone did over the weekend; who cares if their sister got married and it was incredible.  You get impatient if people don't get to the point.  On the phone, your efficient 'let's get down to business tone' only works for people who are wired just like you. They love it. Others, not so much. They think "WTH is wrong with her? She was such a bitch." or "OMG, she is so rude! I'm calling her boss." 

My suggestion?  Start focusing on people and relationshipsHave a more positive tone when speaking on the phone. Research shows that a neutral verbal tone absent non-verbal cues are perceived as more negative.  People can't see your body language so your voice must be more expressive. You can tell who the "people-people" customers are because they often make attempts at small talk (TGIF, this is the worst Monday ever, it's too early for me, it's so cold here).  They also share and want to be sure you understand.  If you treat them as a task, you will be perceived as rude and uncaring to their plight. So, you need to be upbeat, and ooze with enthusiasm, ask how they are doing, and then listen, respond with empathy and go with it. Post some phrases on your monitor as a reminder of what to say and how to say it as you learn to do this. That's what I did because I am one task oriented lady. And if you have regular customers remember things (how was your vacation? how did the campus visits go? did you get hit by that storm?) for the next time you talk.

In the office, it's all about engaging.  Look up from your work more frequently, make eye contact, and yes, smile.  Acknowledge people in the hallways and common areas. If people are social, be a little social, even in meetings.  Your attempts to be efficient and move things along will piss people off.  You may not say anything but your body language may be screaming in agony. If co-workers think you're too direct, consider how you frame questions and make comments.  "Hey I was looking at your report, good work by the way, and I wanted to ask you about your findings and what I'm working on" is better than "Hey, I looked at your report and your results don't match my data." And be aware your email may be perceived as direct or blunt.  So write in all your concise glory and then go back and find opportunities to be less direct. Add a greeting, add a social element, show appreciation for help or support if warranted and add a closing (looking forward to talking with you next week, or thank you).

And since I think you’ll appreciate having some research to back up my comments, complete a styles assessment. Try one of these no cost versions of the Disc Personal Profile or the Keirsey Temperament Sorter (my personal fave) to discover how you differ from and impact others. With your new insight figure out how you can make some changes based on the feedback from your manager and then be ready to discuss it with some specificity during your 1-on-1.  Subtle changes can make a significant impact and that negative feedback will dissipate.

During my career in people development it's been my job to help individuals in their quest for personal growth. I'm confident you can enhance your people skills and have a stronger presence as a female leader. Awareness is key.