Dealing with Difficult Users (Help Desk, Part 3)

Published on: October 24, 2006
Last Updated: October 24, 2006

Dealing with Difficult Users (Help Desk, Part 3)

Published on: October 24, 2006
Last Updated: October 24, 2006

Help desk agents (HDA) are often the target of users’ anger and frustration. When users experience technical problems they need an outlet for their stress.

They can’t take it out on an application or a computer so They — consciously or subconsciously — take it out on those tasked with trying to solve their problems. This is kind of counter-productive, isn’t it?

While it’s true that some HDAs can worsen the situation by objectifying the user (see It’s Not About the Byte: Creating a Human Help Desk) during technical problem resolution, more often than not, a “difficult” user is only in that altered state because of stress — call it temporary insanity.

Understanding Users

During moments of stress caused by technical failures, users can become a little less than polite — a euphemism for being totally PO’d. But their frustration is about the situation, not the HDA. 

It usually has nothing to do with the HDA. Users are simply directing their anger about their predicament at the HDA because they have no other outlet short of breaking their keyboard in half.

Much of a user’s remarks and behavior is based on negative emotion rather than intellect. Unfortunately, HDAs are the recipients of users’ reactions to difficult situations.

HDAs, for their part, must also redirect their attention to the situation, not a difficult user.

This will help alleviate the natural tendency to become angry with the user — and possibly lash out at them — which will only worsen the situation. HDA’s need to understand the source of a user’s frustration; it can be a combination of any of the following:

  • Lack of personal control — Users are not in control of the situation when experiencing technical problems. Not being in the driver’s seat can cause them to feel as through they’re at the mercy of a third party.
  • Lack of attention and action — Users will feel neglected when it takes too long for a HDA to contact them or take too long to resolve the problem.
  • Unmet expectations — Users will be underwhelmed when the resolution to a problem doesn’t meet their expectation.
  • Feelings of isolation– Users can feel isolated and alone when in dire straits because they have no one to relate to.

But sometimes — and I say this frankly — a difficult user is simply a jerk (that’s not a technical IT term, by the way!).

HDAs can do a lot to diffuse tense situations with frustrated users who temporarily lose themselves, but little can be done about users who are being jerks simply for the sake of being jerks.

You can’t tell them to stop being jerks any more than you can tell dogs to stop being dogs. They are what they are and probably can’t be changed.

Some people simply have no class. They are condescending and enjoy talking down to others to inflate their own sense of self-worth — most probably out of their own insecurities.

When dealing with angry or frustrated users, HDAs must help them regain their composure so that they will be in a better frame of mind to assist in the problem resolution process.

When dealing with jerks, however, HDAs must gain control of themselves, their emotions, and their reactions so that they don’t end up landing a right hook on the user’s noggin.

Regardless of personal opinions of the user, HDAs must be able to help all users with the equal diligence.

Tips For Dealing With Difficult Users And Situations

Handling difficult situations with high-strung users can sometimes make HDAs feel as though they’re members of the bomb squad: The slightest action one way can diffuse the situation, but an action another way can set them off.

Knowing how to handle a frustrated user — and knowing how to keep a tense situation from getting worse — can be the difference between resolving a problem and the user going ballistic.

Set Boundaries And Maintain Control

It’s one thing to show diplomacy; it’s another thing to allow users to treat HDAs as punching bags.

If users become abusive — shouting, using foul language, insulting the agent — and HDAs sense that the interaction is slipping away, they must be able to maintain control of the conversation as well as their own emotions.

HDAs can be firm but still diplomatic, telling the user, “I’m here to help you through your problem, but if you continue in this manner, I’m going to have to end this now and come back after you regain your composure.

We’re both professionals so lets start over from the beginning.” This provides the user with a “do over” and a time out to reel in spur-of-the-moment reactions.

Don’t Talk Like A Robot

The interaction between HDA and user isn’t a state of the nation address. There’s absolutely no reason to be overly formal.

In fact, users’ stress level can actually be reduced if the HDA speaks with them in a real human fashion rather than using overly formal business-speak.

HDAs should humanize the interaction and, if appropriate, make small talk to lighten the atmosphere and remind a high-strung user that they’re there to help.

Personalize The Interaction

Even though some problems have standard procedures, don’t turn an HDA/user interaction into a cookie cutter script by simply reading off a list of steps. Speak with users like real people and use their names during the interaction.

Provide Details 

If an HDA senses that a user is frustrated that the problem is taking too long to be resolved, tell them (briefly) what has been done and what the next steps are.

This will help minimize the feeling of the HDA as the driver and the user as the helpless passenger. Taking the time to explain the situation to the user and making them a part of the process (even if only by perception) is much more effective than simply saying, “We’re working on the problem.”

Don’t Transfer The User Too Many Times 

Nothing will frustrate stressed out users than constantly being transferred to other agents or departments.

The initial HDA should try his or her best to see a user through a problem from beginning to end.

If the HDA has to consult with another, more experienced, agent it should be done behind the scenes. They shouldn’t simply hand off the user to another agent or department.

HDAs should only do this if the problem is totally outside their area of expertise.

Become A “Bartender”

Users need someone not only to deal with the technical aspects of the problem, but also someone to empathize with their situation.

A difficult situation can be diffused if an HDA just takes the time to relate with the stressed out user (see the first part in this series for more on this.)

To Be Continued…

HDAs won’t last long in a front line support department if they take every negative interaction with a user too personally.

Remember that most users are in a heightened state of stress and their behavior is based on frustration.

Don’t mistake these moments of temporary insanity as personal attacks — and most importantly don’t take them home at the end of the day.

In part 4 of this series, I’ll be discussing the process of hiring the right people for the job.

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Written by Bobby

Bobby Lawson is a seasoned technology writer with over a decade of experience in the industry. He has written extensively on topics such as cybersecurity, cloud computing, and data analytics. His articles have been featured in several prominent publications, and he is known for his ability to distill complex technical concepts into easily digestible content.