Aries Case Story - Eric's Client service issue

You might find it helpful as background to look at the ARIES Analysis and Tools page before reading this case story.

Eric is a client support team leader in a company providing customized software products, related training, and support services to the financial markets.

He has received an email from his manager, Martine, concerning a telephoned complaint from one of the company’s major clients about poor service. The complaint related in part to the behavior of one of Eric’s team members, Kate.

The client, Cameron, said that he had been waiting on a response from Kate for nearly 3 days. He had requested assistance with an issue that was preventing him from producing some reports that he urgently needed, and felt that he was getting nowhere. The client also said that the last time he had spoken with Kate she had been quite rude.

According to the client, Kate had said in an aggressive tone, “What is it exactly that you don’t understand? Our trainers have been onsite several times to show you how to prepare the reports you need, and I’ve provided as much support as I can. I’ve also explained that you need to upgrade to the latest version of our software to do most the things that you want to do – the ball is really in your court.

When Martine (the manager) advised Eric (the team leader) about the complaint, Martine said to Eric, “We’ve had several of these incidents from your team recently, and two of them involved Kate. Can you please look into this to ensure that we avoid these problems in the future? Obviously, we need to protect our client relationships.”

Eric then met with Kate. Being aware that she is experiencing some outside-work pressures (with a sick child), Eric was conscious of not being overly critical.

Eric described to Kate the message he had received from his manager, Martine, and asked Kate for her version of events. It wasn’t as if Kate didn’t understand correct customer-facing behavior, she had been in her role for 5 years and had generally been a solid performer.

Kate reacted angrily. “Why did the client need to escalate this?” she demanded. “I told him that it would take a couple of days because we are down 2 team members. Doesn’t he get it? In any event, we are doing all of this support because Cameron’s company doesn’t have the infrastructure needed to support the current version of our product - it’s not really our problem.”

Later in the meeting when Kate had cooled down a bit, she said to Eric. “Look part of the problem here is that we’re short staffed. And part of that is because you assigned (named staff member) to work on the project with the marketing group. You didn’t discuss that with us, and then we had (another named staff member) leave unexpectedly two weeks ago.”

After the meeting, Eric found himself thinking about the resources issue. Kate had a point, he admitted to himself. When his own manager, Martine, had asked for a resource to be made available for a new marketing project, Eric thought this would have negative implications for the team’s service quality - but he hadn’t spoken up. Perhaps this was a mistake.

Now we apply the ARIES framework to open up this issue, looking at what could be going on and at possible opportunities from the perspective of Eric, the team leader. Let’s imagine we are working with Eric, helping to make sense of the issue.



Here we pick out some aspects of the issue that could be directly discernable to Eric. And for each of these “observations” we contemplate possible inferences, interpretations – allowing that there can be more than one inference for each observation. Note also that inferences don’t need to be likely, just possible.



Possible Inferences

A major client has complained, saying he’s not getting the support he needs

The client may expect that more training is provided at no cost to cover deficiencies in what has been provided

Senior management taking action indicates the company values the client

The client expects updates more frequently than every 3 days; client has a different service-level expectation

The client says Kate was aggressive in her tone and rude

She was demonstrably rude

Kate was annoyed that client had not upgraded infrastructure

Client is over-reacting; has read too much into the situation

Kate reacted to various pressures in a way she normally would not have

The team has lost 2 employees

The team is short staffed

Kate is overworked

The staffing issue is not the main issue

Kate has had 5 years’ experience

She has experienced similar situations before

She has a good basis for assessing what  can be expected of clients and how much work she can process

Kate is not feeling fully engaged in her work

She might feel that she was overlooked for the marketing assignment

Kate has a sick child

This is making Kate short-tempered – e.g. through lack of sleep

Kate having a sick child has no bearing on the issue

Kate says the client does not have the necessary infrastructure to support the current version of her company’s software: “It’s not our problem”

Client is expecting more service than can reasonably be provided

Client company’s infrastructure may be OK – not the issue Kate says


Kate says the client has been trained in how to run the reports

The client was not personally engaged in the training that Kate and her colleagues provided

There are aspects to do with the nature of the specific reports required and/or the surrounding context (e.g. pressures associated with the client having to produce a number of specialized quickly) that impact on the client’s ability to apply the training undertaken



The reflecting component aims to help in uncovering a more complete story as to what might be real for the various stakeholders; to decipher more about the underlying logic, beliefs and feelings that drive them. This part of the process uses a tool called the Reflection Matrix to look at what might be “under the waterline” of the iceberg for the key stakeholders; that is, possible hidden assumptions, interests, feelings, and knowledge.

In the present case, we imagine – from Eric’s perspective – what might be true presently for each of Cameron (the client), Martine (the manager), and Kate (the team member), as well as for himself. The presentation here is not intended to be comprehensive: you might be able to think of other hidden assumptions, interests, feelings or knowledge for the people involved.

Keep in mind the importance of attributing reasonableness in completing the matrix. It is only if we can regard others as acting reasonably – at least from their perspective – that we can test our analysis. Only an analysis capable of being tested is likely to contribute to engaging people and eliciting energy for change.

  Your (Eric’s) assessment of what the stakeholder (the client, Cameron) might take as given Your (Eric’s) assessment of what might be important to the stakeholder (the client, Cameron); what they value or want to protect Your (Eric’s) assessment of what the stakeholder  (the client, Cameron) might be feeling but not saying Your (Eric’s) assessment of what the stakeholder  (the client, Cameron) might know but have not declared

Cameron (the client)

My needs should be a priority for the company

The solution should be provided without my company having to upgrade the infrastructure

By escalating the complaint I will get my needs met

To get my reports out

To be responded to in a timely and professional manner

To not have to waste time chasing up solutions and responses

To be treated with respect, especially being a major client of Kate’s company

Frustration about not being able to give the reports to my boss, about the claim that the issue is the infrastructure, and about Kate’s rude behavior

Worry about ramifications of report being late

Dissatisfied with my own company for not supporting the infrastructure upgrade

Aware of circumstances in which report is required

Maybe considering other providers of software

May know that person is trained but not available

May have anticipated that had he not escalated, there could be a further delay

May be aware they don’t have budget or resources to do upgrade



Your (Eric’s) assessment of what the stakeholder (Martine, the manager) might take as given

Your (Eric’s) assessment of what might be important to the stakeholder (Martine, the manager); what they value or want to protect

Your (Eric’s) assessment of what the stakeholder (Martine, the manager) might be feeling but not saying

Your (Eric’s) assessment of what the stakeholder (Martine, the manager)  might know but have not declared

Martine (the manager)

Kate didn’t do her job well

There is a pattern developing here and there are issues with the performance of Kate’s team

These types of issues should not come to me, but should be handled at the local level

Staffing issue is unlikely to be significant

Protecting the client relationship

Improving customer  support

Ensuring Eric as the manager prevents these problems occurring

Not hearing directly from clients re complaints

Annoyed that the problem wasn’t resolved when client expected

Embarrassed in relation to the client

Skeptical about client’s motives

Discomfort in that withdrawal of a staff member may have contributed to problem

May know about client upgrade status

May know of an issue re the software  which hasn’t been communicated  to client

Knowledge of staffing situation


Your (Eric’s) assessment of what the stakeholder(Kate, the team member) might take as given

Your (Eric’s) assessment of what might be important to the stakeholder (Kate, the team member); what they value or want to protect

Your (Eric’s) assessment of what the stakeholder (Kate, the team member) might be feeling but not saying

Your (Eric’s) assessment of what the stakeholder (Kate, the team member) might know but have not declared

Kate (the team member)

The client was wrong to escalate (she had said it would be 2 days)

The client has contributed to the issue (infrastructure issue)

The client is over-reacting

Client should be able to handle this (as they have been trained)

Happy client

Manage the degree of pressure she is under

Having management think she is doing a good job

Having the client upgrade so she could provide support they want

Frustrated, embarrassed, pressured, stressed

Angry – have done my part of the job; problem is at client end

Discomfort at how she spoke to client

Not supported by own manager (resources issues)

Overwhelmed with personal and work  circumstances

She knows she overreacted in speaking with client


Your assessment of what the stakeholder might take as given

(Eric’s self-assessment)

Your assessment of what might be important to the stakeholder; what they value or want to protect

(Eric’s self-assessment)

Your assessment of what the stakeholder might be feeling but not saying

(Eric’s self-assessment)

Your assessment of what the stakeholder might know but have not declared

(Eric’s self-assessment)

Eric  (the team leader; self-assesment)

The client’s complaint is legitimate

The staffing decision re the marketing project was non-negotiable

To speak up about the staffing issue could have been seen as not being a team player; not being aligned, supportive of management decisions

Values the performance of his term

Wants to avoid conflict and disharmony on the team

Satisfy the client

Discomfort that he didn’t speak up re staffing situation

Sympathy with the position Kate is in

Discomfort in addressing managerial issue with Kate

Worried about Kate’s wellbeing

Worry about how Martine will evaluate his group’s performance

Aware that Kate not performing optimally with her external situation

Aware of impact of staffing issues on ability of group to perform



The inquiring component of an ARIES analysis involves the case owner in framing vital questions; those that, in the particular context, are likely to foster joint exploration of contentious issues towards the achievement of deep-reaching change. An imperative for Eric, or for anyone else undertaking this process, is to think about the questions that really matter, including questions he would like to ask but may be inclined to hold back on. The attending and reflecting parts of the ARIES process should help in identifying such questions. A task then is to find ways to express those questions so as to minimize the prospect of hostile responses by others.

The inquiring component of ARIES includes 5 types of questions, as described in Chapter 8 of in the Leadership Mode:

Checking Verifying your understanding of what is being communicated
Information Gathering and Clarifying Seeking more information to expand or flesh out understanding and/or to clarify meanings
Exploring Delving into underlying thoughts, feelings, values, beliefs and assumptions
Testing Scrutinizing claims that others make by putting forward new information or observations and seeking their response; examining the inferences that we draw from others’ words and actions
Futuring Seeking to clarify what the future may hold in relation to a topic of inquiry


Some sample questions
Here are a few examples of questions that Eric (the team leader) could ask the other stakeholders.

To Cameron (the client):

As I understand it your complaint concerns our delay in providing you with information you needed to produce urgent reports, and also what you see as rudeness by the team member, Kate, you dealt with. Do I understand the essence of your concerns correctly? (Checking)

What is your expectation for the turnaround time in response to an issue that you raise? (Info Gathering and Clarifying)

What is your recollection of the discussion with Kate? (Info Gathering and Clarifying)

You said that Kate was “rude” in her interactions with you, and you’ve provided some examples. What was it particularly in her behavior that you found to be rude? (Info Gathering and Clarifying)

Are you hesitant about upgrading your infrastructure? If so, can you share your reasons? (Exploring)

To Martine (Eric’s manager)

What do you see as the underlying issues raised by Cameron’s complaint? In asking this I appreciate that the issues may include aspects of my own performance and that of my team, but I’d like you tell it as you see it. (Exploring)

I imagine the recent series of four similar complaints, with two of them involving Kate, must have raised concerns in your mind about the performance of my area and of Kate in particular? (Testing)

What would be a good outcome for you, in working through this complaint and the associated issues it raises?

To Kate (the team member)

I heard about the complaint from management.  But I didn’t hear about it from you. I’m wondering did you make a decision not to talk to me about it. And if so, what was your thinking here? (Testing and Exploring)

Could it be that you were worried that a client you had been working with was upset, and about the possible reaction of management? (Testing)

You’ve mentioned the resources factor. How big a factor is this in the scheme of things for you? (Exploring)

I’m aware that your child is sick. How much has this been a factor in the issues that have arisen here? (Exploring)

You said that Cameron’s company doesn’t have the required software to support the current version of our product. Tell me about your thinking as to how we should deal with clients where they haven’t undertaken the necessary software upgrades? (Exploring)

How do you think we might be better able to deal with other similar complaints if and as they arise? (Futuring)



The expressing component provides an opportunity to think through and rehearse what you might say to specific stakeholders.

Keys with expressing are to:

  • Speak from beyond your own frame of reference (i.e. to avoid being captive to the “truth” of your own argument and to acknowledge other realities, while holding open the reasonableness principle)
  • Disclose some of what might otherwise be hidden for you (assumptions, interests, feelings and/or knowledge)
  • Invite others to engage with what you say.

Creating a short “script” may help you in working out what to include in a verbal presentation and how best to express it.


Elements of the expressing framework

Introducing: Outlining the context for your remarks, your purpose in speaking up; naming the content you intend to cover

Asserting and supporting: Putting forward the key elements in your case and any reasoning and evidence to back them up, while acknowledging other views

Illuminating: Presenting stories and examples to “color-in” your arguments

Disclosing: Making explicit the relevant assumptions, interests, feelings and knowledge that you might not otherwise state

Inviting: Creating an opportunity for others to respond to what you have said.

Let’s imagine that Eric, the team leader decides to speak up to Martine, his manager, about the complaint from Cameron and the broader issues it raises. (Of course, Eric might also use the Expressing tool in thinking about what he might say in other conversations, including with Cameron, and Kate.) Also, in reality, such a conversation would probably include elements of both expressing and inquiring.



  • I want to talk with you about the recent phone call you received from Cameron and the issues that come out of that incident and discussion.
  • There are several sets of issues that I think it would be useful for us to talk about. They concern the client’s problems that led to the call, Kate’s behavior, the status of the client’s infrastructure, and our team’s resourcing and implications of that.
  • My purpose is that we develop a shared understanding about the relative importance of the factors at play here, and about ways of preventing similar problems occurring in future.
  • I’d also like to talk with you about the action I have in mind to deal specifically with Cameron’s complaint.


Asserting and supporting:

In relation to the client’s problems, Eric could:

….describe the research he has done

… describe his findings with supporting evidence, regarding

    Kate’s behavior

    Client’s infrastructure

    Team resourcing

He might present his own distillation of the issues, while acknowledging the realities he imagines that the client, Kate, and Martine see:

For the client, that the delay in getting information from Kate is impacting on his ability to produce urgently-needed reports

For Kate (team member), that she is facing pressures including with reduced staff resources and in her outside work life, in the context of her being a 5-year contributor with a solid record

For Marine (manager), that she would expect complaints like Cameron’s to be sorted out at Eric’s level (or lower) and not come to her; that she may wondering about the performance of Eric’s group – and Kate – as there has been a series of complaints; and that she (Martine) be aware of the resources issue.


Eric could frame a clear request concerning what he wants from Martine.

And he could also state what he’s prepared to do, both by way of dealing with the present complaint and preventing further occurrences in future.




Eric could offer an illustration or story to support his argument, perhaps drawing on experience from elsewhere.




(Drawing on his Reflection Matrix self-assessment), Eric might speak about thoughts and feelings he has previously held back on, such as:

His earlier assumptions that the resourcing issue was non-negotiable; and that to speak up about the resourcing issue to Martine might have made him appear as not a team player


His sympathy with the position Kate is in, and his regret at not having spoken up on the resourcing issue – and the associated feeling that he has let his team down


His concern as to how Martine may have assessed him and the team in light of the complaint from Cameron, coming as it did after other complaints.



Eric might seek Martine’s response to his analysis and to the request/s he’s making.


Naming and specifying a Transformational Challenge

From (description of an initial set of conditions that can be held out as contestable):

A series of complaints have been received reflecting a combination of issues including resourcing issues, unclear expectations, infrastructure issues, and inappropriate customer relationship practices. The various stakeholders hold differing perceptions regarding the importance of these issues.

To (description of a desired set of conditions, representing a future vision fulfilled, again that can be held out as contestable):

A fully-staffed, informed, and responsive support function, with clear and agreed understandings with clients about the levels of service and quality they can expect and that we will provide, and client-oriented communication - leading to improved levels of customer service. This to include establishing understandings with clients about their obligations, particularly with regard to infrastructure upgrades.

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