Frustration, Rage: Handling Volatile Customers

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At some point in your career—maybe even today—you might have received a call from an end user that went something like, “I can’t get this #*&$ browser to close,” or “How do I attach this *!@$# document to my e-mail?” or even “@&$& @#%$ $#&% computer!” Or perhaps the caller didn’t use words—profanities or otherwise—to express his frustration. Maybe it was just a primal, guttural “AAAARRRRGGGHHH!” that sounded much more like the passing of a kidney stone than a request for assistance.

In any event, you’re not alone. One common and recurring theme that can be found among help-desk professionals is the obscenity-laced, bellowing phone call from a fuming end user. While it might be impossible to avoid these situations altogether, there are some steps you can take to make sure they’re handled in the most professional way.

Don’t Take It Personally
First of all, if you are on the receiving end of one of these calls, remember that they aren’t mad at you. They’re raging against the machine. However, their computer is an inanimate object, so they don’t direct their anger at it. When you find yourself getting a verbal lashing with the intensity of a thousand white-hot suns, the best advice is to make like an inanimate object and say and do nothing. Just let them wear themselves out. When their tirade starts to sputter, begin to ask them—politely—about what’s wrong and how you can be of service.

Don’t Join In
Just because they’re swearing and dishing out insults—regardless of whether or not it’s against you—doesn’t give you license to do so. Keep your tongue in check and your language as clean and sterile as an episode of “Leave It to Beaver.” Sure, it’s not fair, but that’s just the way it is.

Don’t Condescend
It’s simple enough to fall into a patronizing attitude with ordinary end users, and it becomes all the more easy when they’re shooting their mouths off and peppering their speech with those words comedian George Carlin said would never be on television. Let’s face it, foul language can make a speaker seem even less intelligent. Do you see a lot of F-bombs on PBS’ Masterpiece Theater? I didn’t think so. “The Osbournes,” on the other hand…

At any rate, it’s important to treat all your confused customers—even the profane ones—with respect. Even if you’re thinking it (and you probably will be), try your best not to put off that “I’m better and smarter than you” vibe. Be as patient and humble as you can be, and they’ll almost always cool off. You might even make them feel bad for being such jerks in the first place. (Bonus!)

Set the Right Conversational Tone
If you encounter the contentious species customerum iratus (closely related to the more well-known shoutus maximus commonly found on cable news programs), you should keep your voice calm and soothing in order to diffuse their state of irrational anger. Speak slowly and in a very soft, friendly tone—we’re talking Bob Ross, the “happy little trees” painter here.

Listen Closely
In between their rants, end users may actually clue you in to what their problem is. You have to listen carefully and take in the germane things they say. Filter through the expressions of exasperation and frustration and piece together the central meaning. Get to the root of the issue, and repeat it back to be sure you’ve got it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions to clarify certain points.

Relax and Have Fun
If you realize that your caller is hemorrhaging common sense, take a deep breath and get ready for some side-splitting comic relief. After all, they can say and do some pretty funny things when they’re peeved. Maintaining a sense of humor in the situation isn’t a bad thing. If anything, it can help you keep a cool head while the person on the other end of the line is losing theirs. Of course, you’re not allowed to laugh at them until after they hang up. But you’ll have a great story to tell your buddies over drinks after work.

These callers can sometimes tax your mental fortitude, but keep in mind that they give the job some flavor. Would going to work be as enjoyable and exciting if everyone who called in was just plain vanilla? Probably not.

Incidentally, in the Help Desk & Support Forum, we’ve got a thread currently going on featuring readers’ most interesting and amusing encounters with end users. If you have any you’d like to add, head over to and offer your contributions to the “Help Desk’s Greatest Hits” discussion.

Brian Summerfield,

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