CXO

Talking Shop: Things you shouldn't say to an irate help desk caller

Dealing with upset users


In some organizations, help desk pros are used to being verbally abused by frustrated users. While there's no cut-and-dried solution that will diffuse every caller's ire, there are ways to keep your cool and help the caller without adding fuel to the fire.

In a recent article, we offered experts' advice to avoid making angry help desk callers even angrier, and several members in the IT trenches had additional advice to offer help desk pros. Here's some of the best advice we gathered from the article's discussion and e-mails.

Never say, "I"
TechRepublic member Billy B. e-mailed us to advise against using the word "I," as in "I can fix this." Saying "I" can set a precedent of high expectations because the customer thinks they are talking to computer god on the other end, Billy B said.

"It would be better to say 'This is an inconvenience that we can work together on; let's see if we can fix this problem,'" Billy B. advised.

Making customers feel like they are part of the solution can sometimes make them feel like they contributed to the fix, he said.

Never say, "This happens all the time"
Further, Billy B. said, "Do not say 'This happens all the time.'" It's better to say "This can happen sometimes," he said.

Billy B. said to remind users not to fear their computers. "Tell them that they are learning quite well and that they are doing excellently."

"After the calls make sure to tell them they did a good job and [that they] know more than they think. It is like rewarding them for their effort of helping you with their own problem."

Never use ma'am or sir when addressing the caller
Some members believe that using titles like ma'am and sir add fuel to the fire of an angry help desk caller. One such member, soybeans, said using the person's surname or no name at all is a better solution because it can be tricky to choose the correct title. For example, it's impossible to know if female callers prefer Miss, Ms., or Mrs., and choosing the wrong one might be seen as condescending to the caller.

"Being condescending is highly insulting and irritating," soybeans said. "Remember that you are starting off with a caller who would rather not have had to call you at all."

Clayton_cleverly added that it's especially dangerous to use the titles if you're unsure of a caller's gender.

"Some folk's voices are quite androgynous, and you will push them over the edge very quickly if you guess wrong!" Clayton_cleverly said.

However, Clayton_cleverly warned that not using these titles can irritate some callers because they may believe they're not getting the respect they deserve.

"I find people far more annoyed by not receiving these minor notations of respect, as well as being offended when people call them by their names, as that tends to imply an intimacy, like you know them," Clayton_cleverly said.

Take your cues from the caller
Weissjo said that she has come to the conclusion that "both the formal salutation and calling a customer by name will result in success," assuming you can give the customer the needed help.

"As a help desk tech, I had customers that liked the 'sir/ma'am' approach and some that did not," she said. "So I would start out with sir or ma'am and then adjust as needed."

If the caller refers to himself by name, for example "This is Joe Ford," then you should give your first name and, if the caller uses it, refer to him as "Joe." But if he responds using your last name or any formal response, then stay with the sir or ma'am format.

"Usually, a return customer will, at some point, move to the informal and you should follow suit," Weissjo said, "But be prepared to revert to formal at any time."

Dealing with abuse
There was a lively debate in the discussion about how to deal with callers who use profanity or who are verbally abusive. Some members felt that help desk pros should never have to listen to any sort of swearing during the conversations. Others said that profanity is just part of some people's every day vocabulary and should be ignored, if at all possible.

Two members, BBorden and fanchant offered tactical advice for dealing with callers who swear while maintaining your professionalism.

BBorden said he tries to keep his attitude and anger in check by remembering that it's the caller who's angry, not him.

"If I let it go too long, and get angry myself, I may have already lost my professionalism," he said.

Once he has that clear in his own mind, he asks politely whether they want his help or not.

"They'll generally realize that their own emotions have gotten out of hand and settle back down into a problem solving mode," BBorden said. "As long as we are both working toward solving their problem, we'll both get what we want out of cooperating. If all they want to do is rant, I just let them. With no response from me, it generally ends quickly."

Fanchant said she employs "the careful use of silence" on callers who are out of line.

"It has the benefit of letting you think of something appropriate to say, and is also not what the caller really expected to be met with in most cases," she said. "On the other hand, a caller who is really being abusive in a personal way needs to have limits set."

Take control of the call
Member Moej, who has worked as a help desk tech for two large firms, provided some advice for setting limits and taking control of the call. He said he never allows anyone to abuse him. Instead, he makes it clear that he's there to help.

"What needs to be done in every call center is training for effective call taking, including anger diffusion," Moej said. "The faster you take control of the phone call, and extract the facts/information you require, the faster you can solve the caller's problem."

He said that "butter-coating" the calls with ma'ams, sirs, and apologies is a waste of time, and that usually the help desk agents who must resort to that are "not technically adept."

"Sitting in a queue and getting butter-coated with half-correct answers is the perfect recipe for an irate caller," Moej said. "If management truly wants an efficient call center they would train their call takers to be effective, instead of just throwing a voice on the phone and trying more to 'schmooze' the caller than to be effective/efficient and solve the issue at hand."

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