The Gift of Difficult People

by Daniel Jacobs

Three years ago, my company, Avanoo, was still in its infancy. We were four people and not much more than a vision and a team crazy enough to believe we could achieve it. Somehow, we’d just closed a deal with a large, well-known consumer brand. Making that deal was an amazing moment in Avanoo’s history, and also in my own life. At the time, my new wife and I were AirBnBing our place on the weekends while sleeping in a friend’s attic just to pay rent. This would be our second paying client! We were excited to show our value, and we went straight to work. On the day we deployed our product to the company’s employees, we celebrated what we believed was a flawless launch. But a few hours later, I received a phone call from the CEO:

“What the f@%& is your problem!” he screamed.

I was floored. No one had ever spoken to me like that in a business context. But he was just getting started. More expletives flew from the man’s mouth. He berated me, my company, my family, and more. I was shaken, and wanted to fight back. Instead, I closed my eyes, took deep breaths, and reminded myself that the man was in pain, and that I could be a support. Finally, he calmed enough for me to ask a few questions and learn about the problem:

He hadn’t received the welcome email giving him access to our product, and the rest of the executive team was already enthusiastically talking about it. He felt that he looked like an idiot in front of his team, and he blamed us for failing him.

As he spoke, I quickly identified how the error occurred: one of his employees had misspelled his email address in a form entry. Avanoo hadn’t done anything wrong! But I bit my tongue – fearing for that employee’s job… or maybe her life. Instead, I profusely apologized to the CEO and helped him fix the problem. Before we got off the phone, he reminded me that I’d “really f***ed up” and that I didn’t know how to run a business.

I wiped sweat from my forehead, and called my business partner and cofounder, Prosper. I shared with him the call I’d had, and let him know that I didn’t want to keep the client. “We have standards,” I said. “Nobody should be allowed to treat us this way.”

He laughed. “When we have two thousand clients you can believe that, Daniel. Right now we have two. So shut up and make the guy happy.”

I closed my eyes, took deep breaths, and reminded myself that the man was in pain, and that I could be a support.

I took a breath… and took his advice. In my mother’s words, “beggars can’t be choosers.” We had a vision; we wanted to make the world a better place. So I needed to value and even look forward to working with difficult people; that would be a part of our path. That day, I pledged to become an expert in working with difficult people – which has really meant becoming a better person myself. I’ve learned to listen deeper, understand it’s never personal, apologize when needed, and love finding resolutions to hard situations.

As I’ve learned, Avanoo has grown to support many of the world’s top brands – some have amazing cultures and some are ready to create them. While nobody called me a four letter word since that blustery day three years ago, people have been difficult for many reasons. And my first instinct, today, is never to run or think I’m too good for anyone. Instead, it’s to figure out what I can learn… how I can be better.. and how I can serve. For me, that’s made all the difference.

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