IT Customer Service 101: How to Deal with an Angry Customer or End-User

What can you do, as an IT customer service provider, when you have to deal with someone who’s really angry? What about providing customer service to someone who’s being unreasonable? How about someone who’s just really rude?

First of all, let’s acknowledge that situations like that suck. They can be just awful. No doubt about it. Still, it happens from time to time and your ability to manage difficult people gracefully can make a huge difference in your career success. It’s not fair, admittedly, but the better you are at handling difficult people and situations, the more successful you’re likely to be in your career.

If you feel threatened or your safety is at risk, take steps to ensure your personal security. Your safety is paramount.

The following tips are tools you can use with someone who’s really angry, unreasonable, or just downright rude, whether they’re a paying customer, a coworker, or anybody else. As with any other toolkit, you won’t use each of these tools in every situation. Some you will use more than others. You may see some that you will never use. When you deal with human beings, each time is likely to be different. We humans are certainly unpredictable creatures!

Stay calm. You answer the call and your customer starts yelling at you. Your coworker comes up to your desk and starts making accusations about you. A customer makes some unreasonable request. A coworker is just rude. Almost immediately, your adrenaline kicks in, you feel your blood pressure rising, and your fight instinct starts to take over. Start by just being aware of what’s happening with your body. Next, be intentional about taking steps to calm yourself. Pause. Take a deep breath, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Repeat if necessary. Tell yourself to remain calm. This is the first step and arguably the most important. Often, if you stay calm, the other person will start to calm down as well. (Don’t tell them to calm down. That’s like throwing gas on a fire!) Along those same lines, don’t try to reason with someone who’s angry. You can’t use reason and logic to remove something that wasn’t created by reason and logic. If the other person is really angry, that’s an emotional response. It’s based on neither reason nor logic.

Focus on outcomes. Work to understand what the other person really wants. After all is said and done, what is the outcome they want. Is there a way to get to it quickly?

Don’t take it personally. It’s rarely, if ever, personal. Remember that. The other person is angry about something related to a product or service that didn’t do what they wanted, needed, or expected.

Avoid competition. Sometimes, when you’re dealing with someone who’s really angry, it’s tempting to compete with them to prove you’re right. Even if you are right, now isn’t the time to prove it and, if the other person is really angry, it won’t work anyway.

Use active listening techniques. Active listening is where you listen to understand the other person. You ask questions to gain a deeper understanding of their concerns. You acknowledge what they’re saying. You treat them with dignity and respect. You may not agree with what they’re saying, but you listen in a way that makes the other person feel heard and respected.

Use inviting language. Phrases such as “Tell me more” are powerful tools to help a really angry person vent. Along with active listening, invite the other person to tell you more about what happened, how it’s affecting them, and what they’d like to happen to resolve the situation. Be prepared to listen and acknowledge.

A sincere expression of empathy. Empathy is your ability to imagine what the other person is experiencing and, to the best of your ability, to feel what they’re feeling. Phrases such as “I don’t blame you for feeling that way.” or “I’d feel the same way if I were you.” can help defuse their anger.

Apologize, if it’s appropriate. If you, your department, or company made a mistake, apologize. If a product or service for which you or your department are responsible failed, apologize. Make sure, if you apologize, to make it genuine and specific. The generic apologies you hear over public address systems such as “We apologize for any inconvenience.” are non-apologies. Don’t that. Instead, make it specific and take ownership of it. “I’m sorry that we didn’t get back to you like we promised. I know that inconvenienced you and I’m sorry for that.” is specific and takes ownership of the error. Of course, there may be times when you need to be careful about saying anything that could be used against you or your company in the future. Your manager or company legal department can offer guidance on that.

Use the other person’s name. This simple gesture helps make the other person feel valued and respected. Don’t go overboard with it, but do use it. You may want to write their name down at the beginning of the conversation to ensure you don’t forget it or get confused and say Lisa when their name is Linda.

Avoid negative language. To the best of your ability, talk about what you can do, not what you can’t do. IT customer service is about providing solutions, not roadblocks.

Avoid “shoulding” on the other person. Don’t talk about what they should have done or what they should do. Even if they did something to cause the problem, this is not the time to point fingers or assign blame. That can come later after tempers have cooled, if it’s necessary to do that at all.

Chunk the issue. Break the issue into smaller chunks and deal with each one individually. Sometimes, by chunking, you can quickly solve most issues and isolate the one or two sticking points that are the real problems.

Notice that all of these tools are about what you can do when dealing with someone who’s angry. None of them are about changing the other person directly. You might be able to influence the other person, but it will be through your words and actions. You can’t change other people. You can only change yourself. In changing yourself, it’s possible that you can influence the other person.

Think about the times when you’ve had to deal with someone who was really angry, unreasonable, or rude. Which of these tools might have helped in that situation? Are there other tools you’ve used to create successful outcomes when dealing with angry people? Leave a comment below.

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