It's not the problems that frustrate; it's how they're handled

I have been in need of a new computer for some while now. My previous machine had reached a level of slowness that made every day work painful. So much as opening Word meant I clicked the icon, went to make a cup of tea and hoped it was nearly open by the time I returned. Just before Christmas, my wife and I agreed it was time to bite the bullet and get a new machine.

I did a fair bit of research, knew the sort of things I needed and then landed on a particular computer at the best price. One particular high street shop had a good deal on that machine that seemed to beat everyone else. So, I reserved the computer and off I trotted with some vouchers in hand to go and get it.

I went to the counter to go and pick up the laptop, which as these things tend to be, was a lot more complicated than it felt it needed to be. No bother. Eventually, somebody emerged with a computer in hand and I could get home and sort it out. I handed over the vouchers only to be told they didn’t seem to work. Off we went to another machine but, once again, no joy. The assistant stood staring at me with a blank expression.

A store manager came along and asked, in not very coded language, whether the assistant knew what he was doing. We were told to ring a helpline and I was told I would have to have a conversation with them. The assistant proceeded to ring the helpline. It was apparent they were not going to be much help. I asked to speak to them. The assistant refused to allow me to do so. He hung up and told me the vouchers simply would not work (even though they stated categorically on them that they would work online or in store).

At that point, the obvious thing to do would have been to go online and order the thing for me. It might take an extra day or two to arrive, but at least it would have shown some initiative and given a sense that they were trying to help and effect a solution. But that offer never came. In the end, I left the store empty handed and a little frustrated at the treatment.

Never mind, I thought, the voucher says it will work online. I’ll just do it myself and order it next day delivery (I was going on holiday and wouldn’t be around to wait any longer). I put the order in online but, before being offered any delivery options, the order had gone through. Never mind, I’ve only just done it, I’ll just ring the customer service line and ask if they can adjust it for me. So I did. And they said that was no problem and I just needed to sit tight. No problem, all sorted (or so I thought).

The next day, we got to very late morning and nothing had arrived. As I didn’t have one, it seemed prudent to ring up and ask for a tracking number. Having gotten through, I was told that the original order had never been changed and it wouldn’t be arriving today. After a bit of wrangling, I was offered the prospect of a local store giving me a machine immediately and my delivery being redirected to that store. I was happy enough with that and I was told they would make enquiries and call me back later that day.

We passed the appointed time and, big surprise, I received no call back. So, I had a chat with customer services again. I was informed that not only had they failed to deliver as promised, the offer of getting one from store and my order being redirected was also apparently impossible and never should have been offered. I was given a choice: wait for the item to arrive as normal or issue a return. I explained that I required fast delivery because I wasn’t in to get it. I was told my only option was a return. Under duress, I agreed and asked for a refund.

Alas, though the company had taken my money immediate – before the computer had arrived – they insisted it was impossible for them to issue a refund immediately. Now, I was being told, until the computer ‘had been returned’ to them, I could not get my money back. Try as I might, they seemed to miss the fact that they knew the item hadn’t arrived and so I had never received it. They saw no inherent problems in taking my money immediately but not returning it in the same time frame. Nor could they see the problem with refusing to issue me a refund for an item they had never delivered until such time as it had returned to them having never reached me in the first place.

Having chased and chased them – nearly two weeks later – they issued me a refund by email. I was able to find a local store on my holiday with the item in stock and went to get it using the e-voucher they sent. At that point, as far as I was concerned, the matter was concluded. I was annoyed by the service but we got there in the end.

But then I returned home. A day after we returned, a letter came. ‘Dear Mr Kneale’, it began, ‘your item has now been received back by our team. Please find enclosed a refund voucher to the amount of your item.’ Naturally, a large part of me wanted to treat that as a nice gift to me. But I was conscious they had already refunded me once so I struggle to believe they intended to do it twice. They did talk about a gesture of good will, but that is some gesture! So, back to the customer services team I went, flagged it up and asked what I should do. Thus far, I have been told that they ‘flagged it’ with the relevant department and I should just put it to one side for now. I have not heard anything from them since.

Now, if you’re still with me (and, honestly, I totally understand if you’ve bailed out at this point), why am I sharing this? I am conscious that people’s interactions with the church can often be a bit like this. At every turn, opportunities to do what is right – often just simple things that would go a long way to helping something – get lost in our processes. Or, people are frustrated by something and, many time, that an issue exists is not what frustrates but the way in which it is handled. Most people recognise, in an imperfect world, things will not always work as they ought. But most of us end up highly frustrated when things do go wrong, not because it happens, but because the way it is then dealt with is either incompetent or worse.

When issues arise (as they inevitably will), it is often not the issue at stake that sends people into a frothing rage but the way in which it is handled. If people are immediately dismissed without a hearing, that frustrates. If people are heard but incompetence and repeatedly poor decision-making mean nothing happens, people get frustrated. If people are heard and something is done but our set processes are so unbending and leaden that they do not allow for any idiosyncratic circumstances, people wind up irritated. If there is a sense that, despite recognition that there is a problem, we aren’t going to do anything to help or alleviate the issue (especially if we are the ones that caused the problem to begin with), people get annoyed.

Whether in the church, retail or any other walk of life, often the issue isn’t that problems occur, it’s how they are dealt with that creates the biggest tension. We need to ensure that the way we handle problems doesn’t end up making the original problem all the worse (or, at least, feel like it’s making it worse). If we have any chance of resolving problems at all, our approach to handling them matters almost as much.