The Problem is Rarely the Problem

When a problem arises, the response to it can become a problem in itself


Depressed that you missed your true calling? You say you always wanted to be a shrink, but ended up building homes or closing loans instead? Well, it’s time to play psychologist. Here are two time-tested techniques for getting an incredibly accurate read of a complete stranger’s true personality:

1. Ride in a golf cart together for 18 holes. Don’t view his cigar as a psychological cue: Even Freud said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” But watch how he handles himself during each blow-up hole, especially if bets are on the line. We handle golf much the same way we handle life.

2. Watch how she treats the waiter in a restaurant. Is she ordering food… or giving orders? Treating the server with respect or demeaning in tone? Patient when food delivery is slow or the meal is not perfect?

Want to know if your customer-facing team members truly understand their buyers? Watch how they handle their customers when things go south during construction, or the loan process, or the design selection experience (I know, that never happens in your company). Your best employees recognize this old adage: ‘The problem is rarely the problem.’

Let’s put this in perspective: my wife and I spent last weekend at a golf resort in the Phoenix area. After the final round, and before we had to make the drive to the airport, we stopped in the club’s restaurant to grab lunch and sat at the bar. Dave, the bartender, took our drink order. When he finally returned to take our food order, both sandwiches came in at an appropriate time, but both of the ‘custom’ features we asked for were not correct. And there were no napkins or silverware or condiments.

So, the waiter’s performance, or lack thereof, created a problem: we had little time, but we didn’t get what we ordered.

We sent Martha’s sandwich back, Dave promising it would be out quickly.

Meanwhile, he went about his business behind the not-so-busy bar. Eight to 10 minutes later, I called him over and asked him for a status report. He replied, “If it’s not out here in a minute, I will go in and tell them this is a ‘911’ request.” He again went about his business, right in front of me, washing a couple of glasses and doing some work on the bar’s computer. After a couple of minutes, I said, “Dave, is this your idea of a 911 request?”

He went into the kitchen and eventually brought back the correct sandwich, just as I nearly finished eating my burger. (OK, OK, I did share my pickles and French fries.)

The incorrect order was not the problem here. I could have dealt with the error, these things happen all the time, but the slowness of the correction and the bartender’s annoyingly casual behavior was aggravating.

During those 15 minutes, the bartender could have done any number of things to provide an unexpected service and convert this ‘problem’ into a win:

1. Sincerely apologize

2. Proactively say, “Let me go and check the status of your order”

3. “I’m sure you are hungry, here is a comp’d appetizer while you are waiting”

4. Send the manager over to apologize

The problem is rarely the problem. It is the POOR RESPONSE that becomes the REAL problem. Sales, design, construction, lender, and customer service personnel need to recognize that their response to the inevitable problems is what buyers will remember and talk about with their friends.

Bob Mirman is a psychologist and founder CEO of 34-year old Eliant, the building industry’s largest firm specializing in managing the customer experience. He may be reached at

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