A few years ago, while in Center City, Philadelphia, I needed to make a telephone call.  Some friends were arriving at the airport later that day, and I wanted to confirm their arrival time and gate.  I didn’t have my cell phone with me, but fortunately I was near a high rise retirement apartment building where another friend at the time lived.  Having been to this building, I knew that the lobby had a pay telephone.  With my then-six-year-old daughter, Rayna, in tow, I entered the lobby and proceeded to make a call to the airline.

As I was getting the information I needed, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a security guard approach me.  Having visited this place many times, I was familiar with the sign-in procedures for visitors. They didn’t apply to me today, however, because I didn’t have time to visit the friend.  So, as the guard approached, I smiled, waved, and said, “It’s OK.”

The guard stopped, glared at me and said, “No.  It’s not OK.”  He had a problem with my using the pay phone.  By that time, I had the information I needed, so I simply hung up, apologized, and left.

That line, to this day, is a running gag with me and Rayna.  For example, I will come home from the grocery store and say in mock seriousness to her, “Rayna, they didn’t have chocolate ice cream, so I bought vanilla.  I hope that’s OK.”  Right on cue, Rayna will scowl and in mock seriousness reply, “No.  It’s NOT OK.”   We then both laugh.

Of all the ways to deal with rude callers, humor ranks among the best.  By laughing (later) about it, one can relieve the tension and anxiety of the moment (consider, for example, the use of comic relief in movies and plays).  I emphasize “later,”  because you really don’t want to be joking with the upset or rude caller at the moment of the call.  Also, I recommend focusing your humor on the WORDS, NOT on the person (i.e. don’t make fun of the person him/herself).  Above all, make sure your joking isn’t picked up by a co-worker’s phone, because that very person possibly might be on the line.

Here are some ideas for humor:

– “Over and under”: Start a pool on how long it is until your favorite difficult customer (some clients call them “frequent flyers”) calls.  Maybe everyone could chip into a kitty, and the winner (the one whose guess comes closest) takes it.

–  “Most outrageous”: keep track, during the day, of the most obnoxious statements, then vote on the “winner.”

– Make the statement an inside joke: Just as “It’s not OK” is a running joke between my daughter and me, take your most outrageous ones and use them on each other.  Make sure both of you know the context, however, and make sure you laugh or smile when you say it.  Note, however, these inside jokes sometimes have a limited “shelf life,” and if you exceed it, you may end up sounding foolish or lame. 

Do you have any other ideas or examples? 

Next week, I’ll share the follow-up actions I took and relate them to the help desk environment.