Tactical Advice

Building Rapport

Seven Tips for Dealing With Difficult Users
This story appears in the March 2006 issue of BizTech Magazine.

Anyone who has been in information-technology support for any period of time quickly learns that some customers are easier to satisfy than others. And anyone who wishes to remain in IT support must adapt to all types of users and learn to resolve conflict in a way that benefits the user, yet stays true to the directives of the organization.


Though the more challenging situations can create headaches, they offer the often-overlooked reward that comes from taking a negative-energy situation and turning it into a positive testimony. Never underestimate the power of winning someone over who was irate and impatient just 10 minutes ago. An IT professional's ability to capitalize on these situations can make the difference between a promotion and becoming a casualty of outsourcing or downsizing. Here are seven tips to deal with challenging end users.


1. Maintain a thick skin. Allowing a frustrated user to vent for a few minutes can help defuse a tense situation, but IT staff can't take it personally. End users are "often frustrated and angry with the situation at hand and may be more abrasive than they would be in normal circumstances," notes Rodney Hopkins, network engineer at Heidrick & Struggles in Chicago.



2. Focus on a solution. Encourage the user to not only explain the problem, but also the desired solution, if possible. This can ease a difficult situation, particularly if an irate end user has unreasonable demands; hearing them verbalized can bring the user back to reality. This can also help the IT professional focus on the needs of the user rather than the emotional context.


3. Skip the jargon. While TLAs (three-letter acronyms) are fine for conversation among IT personnel, the average end user doesn't speak that language. Use of technical jargon makes IT support staff sound like they're talking down to nontechnical users. Instead, offer up some patience and empathy and use layman's terms to describe both the problem and what you are doing to fix it, advises Deven Fortkamp, network administrator for Sunflower Insurance Group Inc. in Salina, Kan. "It's important to not be patronizing nor condescending in your approach," agrees Hopkins. "No one likes to be patronized or talked down to."


4. Share the glory and the work. It's natural for IT staffers to take ownership of a particular issue, yet they can't be afraid to ask for help when needed. Rather than using an end user's problem as a personal learning experience and struggling to diagnose or solve it, IT professionals should consult others on staff with relevant expertise or seek vendor tech support to expedite a solution.


5. Communicate clearly and completely. Too often, customers walk away from an IT support call frustrated with vague solutions they do not understand. Imprecise descriptions of a problem and the likely solutions are perceived as "smoke and mirrors" and don't inspire confidence. IT staff should provide a straightforward review of the diagnosis and the likely fix — even if it involves "regrouping" to bring more expertise to bear.


6. Use the Socratic method. Involving users in the problem-solving and even leading them to come up with the solution themselves, when possible, can help win over tough customers, suggests Paul Turner, information systems manager with Orlando, Fla.-based Mechanical Services of Central Florida. For example, if end users can't figure out how to perform a function in an application, IT staff should walk them through the process but "let them drive" the keyboard or mouse.


7. Document everything. Not only is it good practice to jot down names, issues and requirements, but if personalities clash and a problem requires escalation, good notes are vital. And when difficult end users understand that all requests are documented, that knowledge itself may change the way they interact with IT. Document all solutions and suggestions and how they were received. Even when a problem can't be solved, IT must still demonstrate that every reasonable attempt was made.


When dealing with difficult end users, the most important things to remember are to use common sense and to steer the user in a constructive direction. These two themes plus these seven tips can help transform the most difficult end users into IT's most loyal advocates.



CEO Takeaway

Even if your information technology staffers demonstrate the patience of saints, they'll still experience problems with some end users and may feel blindsided by constant support requests. Here's what you can do to help your help desk:

• Everyone has occasional problems navigating applications, but encourage employees to think through issues before calling for IT support, especially if your company doesn't have a dedicated help desk.
• Allocate time and budget for IT to do periodic check-ins with other departments to address routine issues.
• Budget a set proportion of the IT staff's time to deal with end-user support and inform the entire staff of the allocation.


Jason Holbert is a Tier II Desktop Support Technician at Harcros Chemicals Inc., a chemical distributor, in Kansas City, Kan.
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