I took small groups of passengers through Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and into and out of Thailand for two years as a tour leader. In this ‘lessons from the road’ series, I share my lessons from the road that apply to being self-employed.

One of my least favourite aspects of the job was constantly receiving feedback from past passengers.

Passengers were asked to fill out a feedback form on the trip and their leader, and managers would forward these to us. I’d be in middle of a trip, checking emails in an internet café (this was some years before smartphones were available) and reading this feedback was oftentimes crushing.

Having read some past passenger’s gut-wrenching insight into the perceived downfalls of my personality, I’d have to return to my group, upbeat, smiling and ready to pretend they didn’t hate me. I’d look sideways at passengers I didn’t naturally ‘gel’ with, composing the exact abrasive wordings they’d shortly belch forth to describe my shortcomings in their upcoming feedback.

Being helpful

When I first began leading, I was extremely helpful. Whatever request a passenger asked, I’d do my utmost to accommodate. I listened to people’s grievances, gave them as much information as I could, and took them out for breakfasts, lunches and dinners, minimising the amount of free time that was at the discretion of tour leaders to provide.

I tried hard to be helpful and to be liked. I was trying to be all things to all people.

The tale of two leaders

Leader number one I’ll call Bob. Bob had been working in Vietnam for decades. He smoked like a chimney and wasn’t friendly with combs, showers or deodorant. He was very opinionated. He thought small talk was a waste of time. He had an extremely dry and drool sense of humour.

Bob wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. He was certainly unconventional. And he got raving feedback.

Leader number two, I’ll call Wendy. Wendy went out of her way for her passengers. She prepared her trips with far more care, forethought and conscientiousness than any other tour leader.

She anticipated people’s needs before they’d arise. She bought raincoats to hand out in rainy season. She bought hot chocolate with her own money so passengers could enjoy this during cold nights in homestays in far northern Vietnam.

She took restaurant orders, fetched drinks, hurried up waiters, and was always very collaborative and inclusive.

Bob consistently got fabulous feedback and generous tips. Not everyone liked him. But most passengers respected and trusted him.

Wendy got average feedback and average tips. Very few passengers raved about her. Understandably, she was confused and frustrated by the lackluster response to her considerable effort.

Rejecting nice in favour of authenticity

After a time, it became increasingly hard to be nice everyday to all passengers. I got tired. I got over it. Of course, I needed to be welcoming and helpful and approachable. But I didn’t need to be a pushover.

I started defining my boundaries better. I gave passengers more free time and tried not to worry when they looked nervously at me, like they’d far rather I take them out to dinner again.

When I was dealing with an unreasonable request, a lazy question or obnoxious comment, I did my best to make a joke of it. I said no. I didn’t try to accommodate every request. I spoke my mind far more often and didn’t water down my opinions for fear of being unpopular.

My passenger feedback took a considerable leap upwards.

It’s not your job to be liked

I thought, as a tour leader, that it was my job to be nice to passengers. I thought I shouldn’t speak out of line. I thought I should aim to be liked. I got that wrong.

It’s impossible to be all things to all people. Don’t believe me? Go ahead and try it, and report back. I’ll be here. But I won’t be wiping your tears because I told you already – it’s impossible to be all things to all people.

Gaining respect and authority

It’s our job to deliver what we say we’ll deliver, to provide value, and to gain people’s respect and trust in order to do so. Doing all this consistently will build your authority over time.

Too often, we get things back-to-front. We think being nice and being liked is the starting place. In fact, being liked is a common byproduct of following through on your promise, providing value, and gaining trust and respect.

Especially if you work with your ideal clients, being liked will be almost inevitable. But it’s the result, not the starting place.

If you find yourself overly concerned about being liked in business, try the following:

  • Recognise feedback as a gift and ask the curly questions so that you can continue to improve.
  • You judge what is a reasonable or unreasonable request, nobody else.
  • Your terms and conditions are necessary not only for you, but also for your clients and staff. People want to understand requirements, caveats and boundaries.
  • If you have a strong, informed opinion and people have asked for it or it’s appropriate to share this, then go ahead, without self-censorship. It shows you’re interested, thoughtful and passionate – all attractive attributes.
  • If you’re consistently attracting clients who are ill-suited, difficult to get along with, or make your work not so enjoyable, you need to examine where your marketing is letting you down. Examine it for tone, style and expectations. Revisit your ideal client exercise and see whether your marketing is consistent with this. Ensure your terms and conditions are visible.
  • Remember that what other people think of you is none of your business.

Missed the other lessons from the road? Here’s the first, and the second.