Dealing with Difficult Users (Help Desk, Part 3)

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (24-Oct-2006)

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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:

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.

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.

Copyright © 2006 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.