After Hours

10 things you shouldn't do when working with an upset customer

Nobody likes dealing with an angry user, but it comes with the tech territory. Here are a few ways to keep things from going from bad to worse.

Nobody likes dealing with an angry user, but it comes with the tech territory. Here are a few ways to keep things from going from bad to worse.


It's the call every IT support pro dreads. The customer has major concerns over slow performance or an outage, and you are the person who answered the phone or who is working the desk. Here are 10 mistakes to avoid when working with such a customer.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Taking their attitude personally

Chances are, you aren't the person who caused the problem. More likely, you're simply the person who drew the proverbial short straw. But the customer may see you as the representative of the technology that is causing the problem. It may be little solace when you're facing a tirade, but it still helps if you remember this difference. If you recognize that it's the technology, not you, that's creating the problem, you will have an easier time responding and resolving the situation.

2: Failing to allow the customer to vent

Last night, while preparing a salad for my wife to take to work, I was discussing with my daughter the importance of remaining calm. When I turned back to the salad, I found that Chester, our cat (the same cat who created laptop problems for me), was sampling it. Of course, I disregarded everything I just told my daughter, unleashing choice words for Chester.

Recognize that similar outbursts invariably accompany technology problems. Nothing you do can decrease or end such an outburst. In fact, if you cut off customers mid-rant, you will make them even more upset. As long as the venting doesn't involve obscenity or personal attack or abuse, it's best simply to let people vent. Once they've done so (and eventually they have to stop, if only because they run out of breath), you can begin discussing the issue rationally.

3: Ignoring the emotional

When a customer encounters a problem, an emotional reaction invariably occurs. The degree of this reaction, of course, depends on the nature of the problem and its implications. Someone having a problem with a personal PowerPoint, on Saturday morning, will react less strongly than someone with a PowerPoint problem an hour before a presentation to the CEO. An IT analyst who ignores this emotional aspect of a computer problem risks creating more problems with the customer.

When you're finished, or even while you're still working on the problem, take a second to say, "I know this problem is/was a pain" or "I know that solving this problem is important for you."  When you do these things, you make the customer feel better. And you actually help yourself too. Because later, even if you don't solve the problem as quickly or as neatly as you like, the customer often will cut you some slack. Conversely, if you fail to acknowledge the customer this way, you could end up with a still-unhappy customer even if you solve the technical problem.

4: Focusing only on the technical

Too many IT analysts focus only on the technical nature of the problem. That is, they focus only on getting the application to work or making the network connection faster or getting the printer to print. However, while customers do want the technical problems resolved, they also want an acknowledgement that the problem did occur and that they were inconvenienced by it. If you focus only on the technical problem while failing to recognize and mention the inconvenience to your customers, chances are they'll remain dissatisfied even after you resolve the technical problem.

5: Falling into a "me vs. you" approach

Too often, the appearance of a problem causes the IT person and the customer to fall into an adversarial relationship, with finger pointing. Not only does this create extra stress, it delays problem resolution. Try as quickly as you can to focus the customer's concern on fixing the problem. That is, make the problem your common enemy. Ironically, this may lead to a closer bond to your customer.

6: Overusing "you"

This word, overused, can provoke a negative reaction and make customers feel defensive. Consider rephrasing the statement passively, or using "I" instead. For example, rather than say, "You didn't back up the document" (and maybe the user wasn't supposed to do so in the first place), consider saying, "The document wasn't backed up." Instead of saying "You need to speak louder," consider, "I'm having trouble hearing."

Another area of confusion (and hence needless aggravation) involves the personalization of computers. Instead of saying "You have a memory problem," it's better to be specific and say, "Your computer has a memory problem."

7: Making inappropriate physical gestures

No, I don't mean THOSE gestures. I'm referring to the more innocent ones, which still can aggravate. Have you ever taken your car for service and had the mechanic look under your hood and then whistle? My rule of thumb always has been that amount of the final bill correlates to the length of the whistle. When you heard that whistle, how did you react? No doubt you felt a hole burning in your pocket, right?

In the same way, be careful about how you react to things your customers tell you about a problem. Of course they failed to do a backup. Of course they populated the database with the wrong data. Even though you want to pull out your hair, roll your eyes, or simply scream, try to refrain from doing so. Likewise, try to refrain from the "Oh no," the exasperated "I don't believe it," or your car mechanic's whistle. Those customers have turned to you for help. Reacting the wrong way may upset them, make them angry at you, or cause them to lose confidence in you.

I'm not saying you must sugarcoat the situation. If the problem is serious, say so -- but try to be as level-headed as possible when you do.

8: Telling customers to calm down

None of us would try to douse a fire by putting gasoline on it. When we tell a customer to "calm down," though, that's exactly what we're doing. The customer will not calm down. In fact, the customer will angrily deny being angry and become even more angry at your suggestion.

An upset person is like a person with the flu. Those feelings of anger simply have to run their course, and only then can you deal rationally with the person. During all of the customer service sessions I have taught, I have had ONE person tell me that saying "calm down" actually worked. The odds are against you. Stay away from that phrase.

9: Using slang synonyms for "upset"

We all use slang. But you should avoid using slang words for "upset." If you're talking with the customer, never say, "I'm sorry that you're...

  • Freaking out
  • Flipping out
  • [All] bent out of shape

Using those phrases can send a signal that you aren't taking the situation seriously or that you're making fun of the person. Avoid those phrases even if you're talking about the situation to someone other than the customer -- for example, to a co-worker. Word might get back to the customer, and you could have a problem.

10:  Failing to take advantage of physical positioning

Use physical positioning to your advantage when dealing in person with an upset customer. Are the two of you standing? Then find a place to sit down. Sitting carries more peaceful connotations, because physical combat is more difficult from that position. Once you're seated, remove barriers. If you are behind a desk or a counter, come out from behind it and sit on the same side as the customer. If the two of you are looking at a document, map, or diagram, position yourself so that you are facing the same direction as the customer. Doing all of these things sends the message that you and the customer are on the same side.

About

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

32 comments
rbacal
rbacal

Here's an addition that tends to be a problem for tech customer service. Often a customer who is angry about something not working ends up feeling that the rep is actually hinting that the customer has done something wrong, or doesn't have basic competence. Sometimes that is the case, but when you are perceived as blaming the customer, you are guaranteed to ratchet up the anger. For more techniques, see http://angrycustomer.org

rmazzeo
rmazzeo

...with some even better comments. Just for the record, this type of thing is precisely why I don't do corporate accounts. I limit my business to residential or VERY small businesses. When I was with a "real" company, it was these situations that made me get out of the corporate jungle. Now that I run my own company, my stress level is WAY down, my income is good (I'll never get rich this way) & I'm a much happier person & a much better technician. After all, dealing with one end user without corporate overpaid moronic bigwigs breathing down everybody's neck has helped me to retain my sanity.

jck
jck

Meet their daughter, and then say under your breath: "I'd like to show her my implementation strategy." :^0

agilebrainz
agilebrainz

Would love to send this list to every vendor I deal with in my job! Excellent!

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

It can be difficult for everybody to stay calm, especially in the retail environment when major outages mean lost sales. The biggest lesson I've learned over the years is to establish good relationships with your customers. This is difficult to do in an environment where you may only see a customer once or twice a month, but if you can do it [u]before[/u] the major outages, your customers are often more understanding during those outages.

jdclyde
jdclyde

At the stage there is a problem it doesn't MATTER who caused it (as long as it is understood that YOU didn't!) There is plenty of time for blame later.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

6. Exception: I get a lot of mileage out of the phrase, "You did nothing to cause this, and there is nothing you could have done to prevent it." Use when applicable, especially with those technophobes that are still out there. 7. Instead of whistling, 'Oh No!'ing, etc., I've taken to "Interesting." or even a Spockian "Fascinating." Note the lack of exclamation.

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

One thing that I've had to do to calm an upset client was to explain the supply chain and possible alternatives. This has come into question when some have purchased machines from a manufacturer that didn't want us to service their machines. With no access to their parts supply chain it took and extra couple days for our purchasing department to get approval to buy a whole unit in order to strip it for parts to fix their unit. Next time they'll think twice before buying a unit not on the corporates approved list of supported hardware.

Menace65
Menace65

Perhaps when you CAN'T abide by these 10 things it's time to move into another line of work? ;) It's hard to do technical support when you're also responsible for software development and administration, and project management. Customers become nuisances, especially those who won't listen and perform the same error over and over again. I always try to answer the phone with a smile on my face, which makes a world of difference when I start to speak.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

Takes time...you need to be working for a while to let things bounce like that

bajangrrl
bajangrrl

Excellent article! One phrase that has often been effective in easing the tension of such a situation, is to say, after the customer has finished venting, something like "If our positions were reversed, I'd be really upset right now too...." All customers want to feel important and understood, that someone really gives a darn and wants to help resolve the problem.

stoffell
stoffell

Great article. It's a great idea to just take a step backwards and let it all go by.. The whole idea is, you need your customer to get happy he called you in... And that will help to make him pay the bill you will surely be sending :-)

THOMAS.STUBBS1
THOMAS.STUBBS1

SOME VERY GOOD SUGGESTIONS THERE WILL TRY AND REMEMBER NEXT TIME A SITUATIONS LIKE THESE OCCURE

StampyG
StampyG

I find these kind of things really useful for both me and my colleagues. It's one of those situations where your initial thought is "most of this is just common sense" until you realise you don't actually consider these things when you're involved in confrontation. Seeing it in black & white is just what's needed! Graham Stamp

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I have done all of them and almost immediately regretted it.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Had a moment in one of the stores today. The floor supervisor (a very attractive 30-something) had missed her break and was complaining about being hungry. "I really want a doughnut." My first thought, which thankfully never made it to my mouth, was "How 'bout a Long John?" :0 ]:)

The Dream
The Dream

This is very important especially if you are working for a company with a reputation for bad service (products and support). I worked for a web hosting company like that and we had to deal with irate customers on a regular basis. Happily I was able to stay on the customers' good side for the most part, then I had to leave, because it was becoming more and more difficult to stay on that side because being front line support, so much was out of our hands that it became very frustrating since many 2nd tier people (not all though) were not helpful at all. All we could do was sympathize with the customers, because their poor support was ours too. Interestingly, after I left, I did find out that some customers still asked for me, at least for a while, and I still keep in touch with one that I helped. The funny thing about that customer, I was the one that messed up her website (then got it fixed promptly) but from that point on she would not speak to anyone but me. Even though I left that company years ago, I still stay in touch with that customer. That is my $0.02

Calvin T Sun
Calvin T Sun

Yes, just like normally one shouldn't correct the boss in public. Exception is if the boss publicly but incorrectly admits to making a mistake. If you know the boss was wrong about being wrong (i.e. the boss is right after all, but didn't realize it), it is OK and mandatory to correct the boss lol.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Actually, I think it was an "interesting" case when the user braught it to me. Did some Windows and Lenovo updates then had the user log in to make sure it was behaving; system froze. "Interesting, I'll come and get you again in a bit after I look at this." (f'ing machine.. consistantly freezing during bootup or right after user login if not at the login prompt.)

jonniebgood
jonniebgood

Absolutely on the mark- suddenly realized that I once said almost word for word the same thing to someone who was panicking to get his machine working. Nothing more than an overheating problem, but when I told him that 'his' fan was shot, I couldn't quite understand why he suddenly looked like he wanted to take issue with me. To him, as I now see, it was as if I was blaming HIM for a physical problem, even though he knew inside that I knew that it wasn't his fault. It's just human nature to be a little defensive.

jck
jck

I would have thought: "Want something creme filled?" :^0 ]:)

GSG
GSG

We have a guy that works in our department that is notorious regarding his food intake. He's quite fit, not too thin, not overweight, but, boy, can he eat. For example... He ate lunch one day, then they had left over lunches from the Board meeting that he ate, and 30 minutes later a vendor took him out to lunch. And, he didn't get sick from all the food. Then it happened. He got so involved in fixing a user's computer at her desk, that he absent mindedly picked up her sandwich, unwrapped it, and ate it, along with the rest of her lunch. He didn't even realize he was doing it until he looked up and saw her and all her co-workers in tears from laughing so hard. So, moral of the story is not to eat your customer's lunch. Oh, and he did fix her computer and buy her a new lunch. From then on, she always had candy or something for him when he came to fix her issues.

Realvdude
Realvdude

especially when the boss (and you) are meeting with his peers or superiors. It can also be like falling on a grenade to stop the boss at the toes, when he's certainly going to try to swallow the whole foot.

Jessie
Jessie

uninstall the f'ing Lenovo "system tools" HATE that thing, with a PASSION! Never ever ever answer Yes, when it says, Would you like to connect to the internet? It saves the userid of whomever happens to be logged in when it's installed and then it attempts to use that userid to access something, dang thing locked my AD account with multiple, and I mean MULTIPLE bad passwords for a good hour because as soon as I'd get my account unlocked it'd try again to access whatever it was trying to get to. The Lenovo system tools app is a big virus if you ask me.

johnmckay
johnmckay

As every situation is different you really need to keep your wits about you as best you can. Personally speaking after 30 Years in the business half of those tips at the wrong time will just fan the flames. Telling someone you know they're upset.... they'll just let you know even louder and to stop patronising them. Blame: I've no problem telling someone they caused the problem and I'm doing my best to fix it without making it worse. Always remember there is more than one way out of a problem. Fixing one in 5 minutes, just to spend 1 day recovering issues isn't the best plan if 15 minutes thinking time provides a better solution. Similarly if it was me; no point in the client looking for a problem/solution if I know what I done. Get it in the open and work on fixing it. How often do we find ourselves wasting time/resources to identify a problem and solution only to find the team we're working with caused it and didn't want to admit it? Trying to keep everyone focussed and open minded is good BUT I've never been involved in anything that was life threatening or losing millions. Really can't imagine that sort of pressure personally. Definitely think before you speak!

GSG
GSG

This happened about 6 years ago, and we still don't let him forget it. What was funny is that it happened in the same work week as the day he ate 3 full lunches. I wish I had his metabolism. He works out, but not excessively. He should be huge but, even with all that food, he's quite fit.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Spit coffee when I read "picked up her sandwich..." I would love to have seen that! [still snickering]

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

A winxp install disk isn't going to help much unless I leave it for a day and a half decrypting the drive first. It may actually have been a heat issue as I'm not seeing any airflow through the vents and after sitting off overnight, it's been stable so far this morning.