5 Tips IT Agents Need to Handle Unhappy Customers

End users are always fairly calm and happy on the whole, right?

When we open a new toy and it doesn't work quite the way we expect, we cheerily get on the phone with a tech support rep who, being in a pleasant mood himself, happily and patiently works through the issue and saves the day.

Wouldn't it be nice if that were actually the case? While it's true that most end users aren't inherently cranky, as support representatives, we are often interacting with them when they are in the midst of a stressful situation—an entire system is down prohibiting work and costing money, a whole presentation just disappeared, important files can't be retrieved on a mobile device, or a computer is showing the black screen of death.

And let's not forget that we as support technicians aren't always in the best of moods either. We'd rather be heading home to beat the traffic than stuck as the last guy in the office once again. We hate being woken up at 1 a.m. to the great news that a server is down. And we'd much rather be at a party than pulling a double shift handling dumb questions about why a new "whiz-bang" product only goes "pop" instead of "pop-pop."

So how do you deal with disgruntled customers?

To get some answers to this question, I asked members of my own tech organization's support teams, who, thankfully, enjoy a very high satisfaction rating. Here are some of the things they have learned when encountering a disappointed, disgruntled, or upset client. Keep these in mind and remember, while angry customers are inevitable, losing their business doesn't have to be.

Empathize. Apologize to the caller for the inconvenience the issue is causing. Saying "I'm sorry" is a great first step, but it's not enough. The person calling needs to know that you understand not only the technical details, but also why she is frustrated. In order to empathize you have to listen. Really listen. Sometimes that means a employing healthy dose of silence while the caller explains the details of the situation that she feels are important. It also means staying calm yourself. You can't think straight, let alone empathize, if you're defensive and primarily concerned with getting the other person to agree with your viewpoint.

Take ownership. Never utter the words "I can't help you." Several barriers might stand in the way of an immediate resolution. For example, you may not have encountered the particular problem in the past, or you may not have permission to address an issue directly. But you do have the power to assert yourself on the customer's behalf, and be his or her advocate. The next key to resolving tough situations is to give the upset individual confidence that not only has he been heard, but that you are also going to help him get to the best possible resolution. What you don't have in answers, you have in resources. You have technical skills and an understanding of complicated details. You have experience troubleshooting. And in a well supported organization, you should have options for bringing in others to get as close to a root cause as possible.

Be engaged. Whenever possible, communicate the resolution you'd like to attempt and confirm it with the end user. The best examples of successful conversations with angry customers start with listening, empathy, and fact-finding, and then moving to put together a concrete plan for reaching a resolution. When customers know you're taking ownership of resolving the issue and they can see a path to resolution, it reverses the dynamic of the conversation.

Follow through. Few things do more damage with customers than saying you'll do something, then failing to follow through. If you empathize with an angry end user and put together the best available concrete plan but fail to execute, you're worse off than when you started. You've likely just lost that customer's business. You are also likely to repeat the conversation later, with a few extra decibels added in. All of it could amount to additional wasted time resulting in lost business. Depending on the user, you might even get a few angry tweets thrown in the mix for good measure.

Stress relief. Take care of yourself. Some stress is necessary, but too much stress from assisting upset or irrational end users is corrosive. Immediately after a call, you should be documenting your interaction and executing on your due diligence from the plan. When it's time for a break, though, you'll need to let off some steam. More organizations are realizing the importance of stress relief and providing employees with outlets for a quick reset. Whether you're stepping aside for a quick ping-pong match with a coworker or stretching at your desk, find something that works for you. Your success rate resolving end-user issues will increase if you are relaxed and energized.

Taken together, these elements fold nicely into the objective of a support team to become advocates for end users rather than being viewed as distant and detached support staff. When you can provide your customers with an acceptable outcome and be sincere in the process, many will become more loyal than ever. As frustrating as it can be, remember that each conversation with customers is an opportunity to not only help resolve one issue, but to retain their business for weeks and years to come.