Handling Difficult Helpdesk/Service Desk Customers

A long time Serio customer and friend (who shall remain nameless) asks ‘I’ve been asked to write-up some guidelines for our operations manual about dealing with difficult customers who call our help desk. I’m struggling so I thought I’d ask you!’. What prompted this was an exchange between a first-line helpdesk staff member and an internal customer with a print problem which seems to have gone badly wrong.

I’m always glad to help. However, after hearing the following anecdote (which I apologise for re-telling) you may think otherwise about asking for my assistance.

After graduating in the late 1980’s I worked at a Bank in London – my first proper job. This was not a retail bank, but a bank that made money by trading forex, shares, risk – anything you like really that can be traded. As the new graduate, I wound up on the helpdesk taking calls from (amongst others) traders. My training consisted of being shown how to use the 1-page logging system and told ‘they shout – a lot. I’m outa here’ and with that, after 10 minutes, I was on my own.

My first 10 or so calls were easy, then this happend.

Caller: ‘My monitor is fuzzy. I want a new one.’

Me: ‘Have you checked to make sure the video cable is not near an AC power source?’

Caller: ‘What?’

Me: ‘Have you checked to make sure the video cable is not near an AC power source?’

Caller, slowly this time: ‘My-monitor-is-fuzzy-I-want-a-new-one.’

Me: ‘er…’ (I was starting to panic) ‘It might just be that the AC power source is interfering with…’

Caller: ‘What the [deleted] is this a physics lesson you [deleted]?’ Then aside to a colleague ‘they got [colourful phrase] Jonny Ball working on the [more colourful language] helpdesk and the [four letter word] is giving me a [expletive] physics lesson.’

Me: ‘It’s just that if you –‘

Caller: ‘You’ve got 5 seconds to say the magic words or that’s it. 5-4-3-2-1 bye’. Then the phone was slammed down.

Ten minutes later I was within a whisker of being fired, & not allowed to work on the helpdesk again.

So, how can you avoid making my mistakes?

1. Role play. Although my correspondent asked specifically for text for an operations manual, I don’t think this is what he should be asking for. Text written in an operations manual will not help you at the time that you need it – when you’ve got an angry person on the phone. Instead, you should develop role-play exercises and use these should be used by your staff. Make sure the exercises are played-out in a private environment (just the front-line team) and that the scripts you are following are realistic – if you like base them on real customers or situations. Then back this up with some written guidelines. Make sure that each new start gets a chance at the role play – you can almost guarantee that if you don’t they will be the ones to get the irate customers.

2. Make sure staff, particularly, new starts, understand what customers can reasonably expect. In my anecdote above, I did not understand that the traders got whatever they asked for – and quickly. The company actually kept spare (new) equipment all configured and ready to be swapped in or out, having a stock to rival your local computer superstore.

3. Don’t argue. Your job is not to defend the helpdesk or service desk position. If the customer is complaining about something bad you’ve done apologise to them, agree with their complaints, and stress you will try to do something about it. If you don’t do this then the situation escalates, as shown above. During the role-play, listen for staff who sound patronising or insincere and talk to them about this. However, avoid obsequiousness (grovelling) – so some angry people this is like fuel to the fire.

In the example above, I was arguing with the caller. He made it clear that he was not going to check anything to do with his monitor, yet I persisted. Although I did not disagree with him, this is still arguing.

4. Avoid agreeing with the customer if they start to infer that the whole service offered by your helpdesk or service desk is rubbish. Just deal with the specifics of what the customer is irate about.

5. Make a careful not of what has irritated or upset the customer. Make it clear to the customer by re-stating what they want, or what has upset them.

6. Don’t get angry in return. I always find that standing-up can help during a difficult call, as it help you to breathe more easily and relax.

7. Optionally, have a complaints procedure, and ask if the customer wishes to raise a formal complain. Be prepared to explain the complaints procedure.

8. Whilst listening to the customer complaint, learn to become deaf to rudeness.

[Edit: I posted a follow-up to this here