Dealing with Difficult Users

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As networking professionals, we’ve all been there. You come into work, read up on your latest trouble tickets and see one particular user’s name appearing over and over. You check your email and see the same name in your inbox. You listen to your voicemail, only to hear that same person’s voice telling you exactly what you’ve just read in the trouble tickets and emails.

There are many definitions of difficult users, and this description is just one of them. We’ve all dealt with them, whether you work as an entry-level tech in a helpdesk environment or you’re a seasoned second-level support engineer. 

Dealing with difficult users is one of the skillsets that we as network professionals are required to develop. In this article, we’ll examine how to best hone those skills by approaching difficult users in the most appropriate and painless ways possible.

Who qualifies as a difficult user?

Typically, difficult users fall into any of the following four categories:

  1. Rude users who may insult you or even yell at you.
  2. Impatient users, such as the one we described earlier, continually pestering you until the problem is solved.
  3. Suspicious users who show no confidence in your abilities and that may continually ask for someone more senior to take on the problem.
  4. Confusing users that will ramble about their problem in an email the length of a toilet paper roll.

I’m sure that you’ll be able to refine these categories even further based on your experiences. In any case, the goal here is to be able to resolve the problem as quickly as possible, without getting caught up in the difficulties that these users often cause.

So how should you deal with such users?

Dealing with the rude users

Rude users are potentially the most difficult to deal with, so let’s sort them out first. 

  • Keep calm. Remember that most rude users aren’t directing their rudeness personally toward you but have just had a bad experience with the network or service you support. They may be carrying other emotional baggage that has nothing to do with the actual problem. By keeping calm, you can avoid knee-jerk reactions that may make things worse. Accept their feedback, but distance yourself from any personal remarks.
  • Be empathetic. Put yourself in their shoes and try to see things from their perspective. Share with them that you understand their plight and that you’re there to help.
  • Apologize. Even if it’s not your fault, just do it. Apologies will typically scale down any negative emotions.
  • Focus on solving the problem. Ultimately, solving the user’s problem will get them out of your hair, so the faster it’s done, the better for the user and you, of course.

Keep in mind, however, that if rudeness gets out of hand and becomes abusive behavior, talk to your manager, or HR services, or any responsible entity that’s equipped to deal with such scenarios.

In my helpdesk days, when I was just starting, I had such a user visit my office. He was furious and swore at me. Luckily, I was able to keep my cool, preventing further escalation. Needless to say, he was dealt with by the HR department. It’s not easy, but at the end of the day, keeping calm plays an important role in quickly resolving such conflict.

Dealing with the impatient users

Impatient users can be very annoying because they continually distract you from dealing with the problem they’re facing. They may even contact you at strange times or may pester you repeatedly. To deal with such users:

  • Ask not to be disturbed. Clarify to the user that the time you’re taking to respond to their continuous communications reduces the time you can spend on their problem. Even if you’re unsure how long it’ll take, giving them a specific timeframe in which you believe that the problem will be resolved can help to avoid any further communication. At least during that specific period.

Much like the example in the introduction, I’ve found that such users will often exploit multiple channels of communication, trying to get their message across to you. Even if you get an email, voicemail, text message, or a messenger pigeon all containing the same information, don’t let that faze you. Stay focused on the task at hand.

Dealing with the suspicious users

Users want to know that the person attempting to solve the problem they’re facing is competent and proficient to resolve the issue quickly and correctly. Suspicious users will question that competence from the start. That’s why it’s important to:

  • Assure such users of your capabilities. Keep in mind that their suspicions may not be directed toward you, but may be based on previous experience with other tech support staff. Use language that will reassure them of your understanding, such as, “Oh I see what’s going on…” or, “I’ve dealt with something like this before…”. 
  • If all else fails, escalate. Even if you haven’t gone through all of the possible troubleshooting tasks, sometimes the level of suspicion will be so great that it’s not worth the time it may require to deal with both the problem and the user’s suspicions. Bypassing the problem upward you’ll assuage the user’s suspicious behavior, while at the same time giving some breathing space to your second, or third-level colleagues, or supervisors to deal with the issue.

I’ve had one suspicious user get to the point of accusing me of actually causing a fault in a completely unrelated incident. They suspected that my attempts to solve their particular problem caused a failure elsewhere. It just shows you the extent to which such behavior can extend.

Dealing with the confusing users

Now, this heading could be dealing with confusing, or even with confused users, so take your pick! In any case, such users are difficult to communicate with simply because they’re unclear in describing the problem.

  • Communicate with the user by phone.  Whenever possible, confusing, or confused users should be communicated with by telephone, since reporting problems via email or some other text-based method can be even more unclear for such situations. By talking with them and choosing your questions wisely, you can lead the users to provide the necessary answers.

At some point, I’ve made the mistake of responding via email. In an attempt at helping this person understand the situation, I gave them as comprehensive an explanation as possible. Unfortunately, the result was an exchange of emails that were ever-increasing in size, resulting in literally hours of writing. The time that could’ve been better spent resolving the actual problem!

Your ultimate goal

The whole purpose of applying these principles is to ensure that you resolve the issues these users are bringing to you, as quickly and as painlessly as possible for all parties involved. In all cases, the point is to approach the user, based on their idiosyncrasies, in such a way as to avoid any misunderstandings or offending them. It can be difficult sometimes, but at the end of the day, it’ll make your life and theirs, much easier.

The final word

From my personal experience, this well known, but slightly modified adage, is very true:

Networking would be the best job in the world… if it wasn’t for the end-users!

Don’t get me wrong, we love our end users, they’re the raison d’être for the network and in turn, the network is the raison d’être for our jobs and our pay. So we must treat them with the respect they deserve, even if there are some users out there, that may deserve it just a little less.

Remember, if you’re passionate about it, as a network tech, you arguably already have one of the best jobs in the world! Cultivating the skillsets described here will make your job even better!

Have you ever dealt with difficult users? Which type? Do you have some additional tips for us? Let us know in the comments below!



Lazaros Agapidis

Lazaros Agapidis

Lazaros Agapidis is a telecommunications and networking specialist with over twenty years of experience in network design, architecture, deployment, and management. He’s worked with multiple wired and wireless technologies including IP networks, fiber optics, Wi-Fi, as well as mobile communication networks. He has developed training content and courses for multiple vendors, and has been directly involved with teaching telecommunications for more than a decade. Over the years, he’s gained valuable first-hand experience from working on various large-scale telecom projects from both the enterprise as well as the telecom provider point of view.

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One comment

  1. Well written and to the point!!

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