Ways to avoid making angry help desk callers even angrier

Nothing is worse than taking an irate customer's anger up a notch by saying something you shouldn't. Follow this advice on understanding your callers' ire and learn ways you shouldn't react.

Raging help desk callers have two motives: to vent their anger and get their problem fixed. Unfortunately, you may be the one who bears the brunt of their ire when you pick up the phone.

To communicate effectively with irate callers, you need to understand their anger and know what may trigger even more venom. Recently, TechRepublic provided a three-step method to keep frustrated callers calm. We've now gathered some expert advice for understanding frustrated help desk callers and learning how to avoid making them even angrier.

The top five reasons a customer is seeing red
Janelle Barlow, president of TMI US, a human resources development company, has outlined five common reasons help desk callers may be angry.

Their expectations haven't been met
According to research, in almost two-thirds of the cases, customers are responsible for their own problems. Failing to read the instructions is often the reason for a lot of mistakes. But that's no reason for the company to use the "You should have…" language. Sometimes customers' expectations haven't been met because they were given inaccurate information. The appropriate response is, "You are right. I'm so sorry. Now, what can we do about it?"

They're embarrassed
This can happen because either they feel stupid or the help desk pro makes them feel stupid with his or her obvious questions. Alert the customer that you're about to ask some standard questions by saying, "I'm about to ask what may seem like obvious questions. I need to follow a protocol so we don't try to fix something that isn't broken." Most customers go along with the "stupid" questions if they feel they've been given a reasonable explanation for them.

They've had to wait too long
This is a tough one because the customer may feel like punishing someone, and the person who happens to pick up the phone is the handy victim. First, listen to the customer complain and then say, "Thank you for saying that. I know you must be in a rush, and I'm going to do everything I can as quickly as possible to not waste any more of your time. I really appreciate your staying on the line to give us a chance to help you."

They have a history of problems
They probably don't want to tell you about them, but on some level they expect you to know. Wouldn't it be nice if everyone approached his or her interactions as if it were a one-time event? The reality is, most customers don't. Instead, they bring with them the memories of past bad service, and that can make them upset. At a minimum, a history of past problems can cause customers to start their help desk interactions with a chip on their shoulder.

They think you're being unfair
This is one of the strongest reasons for people to get so upset that they escalate by going to the press, contacting their lawyer, but absolutely—and most likely—by insisting on talking to the supervisor or manager. When help desk pros hear a caller say, "That isn't fair," they should consider it a red flag.

Five ways you shouldn't react
Barlow, who is coauthor of A Complaint is a Gift and Emotional Value: Creating Strong Bonds with Your Customers, offers some advice about what you shouldn't do when a caller is angry:
  • Don't take a high moral position when someone swears. Many people swear as a matter of normal conversation. They may not be aware they're swearing.
  • Don't take the attack personally. Who knows how long they were on hold and whether they were disconnected two or three times?
  • Don't tell the customer "no." Rather than no, tell them what you can do for them.
  • Don't tell the customer, "It's policy." Customers really hate that and see it as a red flag. Instead, say "I'm going to do everything I can to help you. At the same time, there are some guidelines I have to follow. I'll do everything I can to get them decided in your favor."
  • Don't say, "If you keep up with this attitude, I'm going to discontinue this call." Many call center staff say this, and it only makes the caller angrier. It's a threat, and callers generally don't back down when they're already angry.

If you can help irate customers and get them to turn their attitude around, these can be the most rewarding calls of the day, Barlow said. She teaches customer service pros to use a line that she claims nearly always makes customers stop and realize that their anger is only getting in their way. The line is, "I don't care how angry you get with me. It's not going to stop me from doing everything I can to help you." Barlow says this works because you have two negatives, followed by a surprising positive. Customers often end up apologizing for their behavior.

Add to the list
What's on your list of things you should never say to an irate help desk caller? Send us an e-mail or post your advice below.