During the course of a 60-year management career, I have had the privilege of meeting my share of prickly people. Some were business associates, some were bosses, some were vendors, some were customers, many were employees and some were relatives.

Paul Burri

Paul Burri

In most cases — although I certainly wished differently — they were people I didn’t have the luxury of “firing,” mainly for practical reasons. (Is there anyone out there who hasn’t secretly wanted to fire a mother-in-law, a brother-in-law or a key employee?)

In one instance, I owned a small company with only a few employees — each of them “key” in one way or another. One of the key employees was continually urging me to fire one of the other key employees. It certainly would have made the complainer happy, but it would have had adverse effects on the company. As the owner/manager, I had to look at the total picture rather than try to satisfy one employee at the expense of the other, but it meant having to deal with one other prickly person from time to time.

During my long career, I also encountered my share of difficult customers who could not or would not be satisfied — no matter how far we leaned over backward for them. This was in spite of our mission statement that said a lot about how much we cared for all our customers. (I guess we forgot to send him a copy, or he never read it.)

I eventually learned it was inevitable in one way or another that I was going to have to deal with a prickly person, whether it was a customer, an employee, a supplier or a relative. Worse yet, because that person was important to me for some reason, I simply didn’t have the luxury of “firing” that person. To put it a little differently, being in business meant having to deal with prickly people from time to time for the overall good of the business.

Now, fast-forward to just a few weeks ago. I know a young man who owns a small business that’s not doing as well as it could. It could be because of the recession, it could be because of the owner’s lack of business experience, it could be difficult employees, it could be poor financial experience — or it could be a combination of all those factors. It could be many other things as well.

In any case, having been in a similar business and wanting to help, I contacted this young man to offer my advice and counsel. I might add that if he were to hire a consultant for this same advice, it could cost him hundreds of dollars in consulting fees.

Refusing to deal with prickly people is a luxury that a small-business owner — especially one in trouble — enjoys at his or her peril. Apparently this particular young man has yet to learn that because a few days later, he declined my offer, saying it was because “our personalities clash.”

I learned that I’m one of those prickly people I’ve been complaining about.

— Paul Burri is an entrepreneur, inventor, columnist, engineer and iconoclast. He is not in the advertising business, but he is a small-business counselor with the Santa Barbara chapter of Counselors to America’s Small Business-SCORE. He can be reached at pburri@west.net.