Help desk techs deal with a variety of users. Some are polite and patient, while others are angry and anxious. Handling hostile users can be difficult, but by being firm, yet understanding, you can defuse a tense situation.

Can you frighten me into helping you?
How often have you had a user call with a demand like this one:

“This must be working by 3:30 this afternoon (the call is received shortly before 3:00). This is for someone very important who needs to be on a plane at 4:00. If it’s not working, someone is going to lose their job!”

The caller thinks that they can frighten you into producing a solution faster than normal. It’s likely that they themselves have been subjected to unfair pressure, and they’re only trying to unload it on you. This kind of approach is totally unproductive, and I usually tell the caller so.

Be firm, yet sympathetic
I initially take a hard approach to hostile users. I find that turning the pressure back onto them can settle them down. I might respond to the example caller’s threat with something like this:

“If you knew this was so important, why did you leave it until the last minute to call?”

After taking this strong initial approach, I then explain to the user that I will do my best to help them, just as I would for any other caller. But I will not be browbeaten into dropping all my other clients. If the problem is an easy fix, I’ll assist the caller immediately. If the problem is more complicated, however, I’ll tactfully explain that while I will do my best to solve their problem, I am not a magician. It may be necessary to give them some bad news:

“Your problem is more than a quick fix, and it is unlikely that ‘Mr. VIP’ will make his flight. Also, with such short notice, it is not reasonable to hold the help desk responsible.”

Let the user know you’re only human
While it might be seen as a compliment that many users consider support techs to be miracle workers, in reality we are only flesh and blood. Let the user know this and don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know,” even if the user is being hostile. This allows the user to see you as a person rather than someone to badger or act out on, and gives you the opportunity to offer an alternative solution or to research the problem.

Deal with the user in person
If possible, have the user come to the help desk. This allows you to work on their problem without abandoning your other clients. It also allows you to interact with them face-to-face. It is harder for most users to be angry and threatening in person than on the phone. The user also gets to see you working on their problem and enables them to see that you understand their dilemma and are committed to solving it.

Handling an angry user is never easy, but with these suggestions, hopefully you will be better prepared to deal with this kind of situation whenever it rears its ugly head.

How do you deal with angry, threatening users?

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