I had a wonderful opportunity a couple of months ago to speak with a group of help desk professionals at the CRM Support Services Conference. (You can read my report here.) The audience of about 100 included analysts and trainers, but for the most part they were help desk managers.

During the question-and-answer session, the question was raised, What do you do with an irate caller? When this one came up, everyone nodded and groaned, and each person could have told a story about how impossible some callers are.

It’s what you say and how you say it
Believe it or not, there is a fairly easy way to handle these calls. First, try not to interrupt the caller. He or she may need to rant for some time, but try to listen and wait. The moment the caller pauses for your reaction, jump in. Give no time for thinking or recourse. Just charge ahead and apologize. That’s right. Apologize, and make it a great apology.

If you were listening during the ranting stage, you’ll be able to make specific apologies. Something like, “Let me just say that I’m really sorry you’ve had to put up with this. It’s hard enough to learn a new program when you need to be out there selling, but when the computer keeps locking up, it’s impossible. I mean, the whole point of the computer is to save you time, not cost you time.”

There may be a slight pause before the caller can respond. After all, the irate caller is prepared to yell some more when you suggest trying something he or she has already done 100 times. Some people still go ahead and yell a little, but eventually they will calm down.

Just bite the bullet
Some people don’t like the idea of apologizing for something they didn’t do. After all, callers should understand that we’re all in this boat together. Help desk analysts experience every problem users experience, but multiplied by hundreds. It’s frustrating for everyone.

One of the help desk managers in the audience pointed out that in most cases the help desk represents the technical community to users. End users never get to speak with programmers or those making hardware decisions. If the caller deserves an apology—and he or sheoften does—it’s up to us. There is noone else.

Once your apology has been accepted—and it will be—you can move on to solving the problem. It still won’t be a cakewalk. Tempers still may flair, but if your apology was sincere, you and the user will be able to form a bond that can get you through the rest of the call.

Pat Vickers is an MCSE currently with Sprint.

To comment on this article or to share your own experiences dealing with irate users, please post a comment below or follow this link to write to Pat.