Yelling at Tech Support Does More Harm than Good

There will be blood.

OK, maybe not blood. But there will be music on hold, and rising tempers and quite a lot of yelling, because it's Friday and your computer crashed and you need to finish that report and the tech support guy is not helping.

Quotidian computer complaints, frustration and feelings of helplessness are pretty standard for people who spend their workday sitting in front of a monitor. So, too, is the temptation to chew out the tech support professional at the other of the phone when you're staring at a blue screen or can't get your e-mail to work.

But before you bite off the head of the help desk analyst, consider that your actions might have real consequences.

"One guy just wouldn't listen to the help we were trying to give him," said Adnan, a tech support pro at a large insurance firm in New York, who asked ABC News not to use his last name.

"He was just screaming and cursing. No matter what I said, his sole response was just to curse. I think because I don't have an American name, he figured I was in some call center in India," he said. "I told my boss, who escalated it to the HR department. They had a meeting with him, and we never had any more problems from him again."

People tend to be more emotive over the phone or in an e-mail than they would ever be in person, said Tory Johnson, a workplace expert and ABC News contributor.

"On the phone and especially in e-mail, we say things that we would never say face-to-face. In the workplace the customer is always right, but sometimes a customer can get out of hand and needs to be put in their place," she said.

A comment you might call snide or just a way to blow off steam might be construed by a help desk attendant or even the HR department as a rather serious workplace offense -- bullying.

"One person might describe their behavior as being annoyed, dissatisfied or snippy. But someone on the other end of the phone might perceive those comments as belligerent or bullying," Johnson said. "If someone feels they are being bullied or intimidated or disrespected, they have a right to complain."

Laurie Rutland, head of the information systems help desk at the Ohio State University Medical Center, has a method for dealing with abusive callers.

"If someone is really just being an irate jerk, I'll put them on mute and make a lot of faces. Sometimes I'll pound my head on the desk and take a lot of deep breaths," she said. "When I realize someone is really frustrated, I try to do my best to let them know I understand and calm them down. Sometimes I try to think of them as my parents who are aging and don't know how to use a computer."

But sometimes, Rutland said, people cannot be calmed down and then she reports the caller to a supervisor.

"There are times when we have physicians who demand things, demand them immediately, and demand them rudely. In those cases, I'll go to my supervisor and say: 'This guy is really out of line.' Usually, that takes care of the problem," she said.

Rutland's strategy is spot on, Johnson said.

"The best response is to address the problem immediately. Say: 'I respect my colleagues and I demand respect in return.' Use specifics. People shouldn't look to their supervisors as a first line of defense," she said. "Think how you can nip the problem in the bud, and if it is not working, then report it. It is always best to confront a bully."

The rules for dealing with tech support do not change if you're dealing with an outside provider rather than an in-house help desk, said Jeffrey Brooks of Peak 10, a data center that provides services to other companies.

Call centers sometimes get backed up and need to prioritize the most critical problems first, he said.

"Every secretary who can't get her solitaire to work thinks it's the end of the world," he said. "There is a certain sense of entitlement. People think they're paying for a service and can walk all over the people providing that service. It is the 80-20 rule; 80 percent of the calls come from the same 20 percent of the customers."

Brooks said if a customer gets belligerent toward one of his technicians, he will call that customer's boss to let her know about her employee's inappropriate behavior.

"I've called bosses to say it is inappropriate to call my guys and curse. Yelling always begets yelling," Brooks said. "It is sometimes the best policy to let someone's boss know what is going on. Most agree business is business and there is a proper way to behave."

Basic rules of etiquette apply in the office, regardless of the technology used to communicate, said Anna Post, resident business etiquette expert at the Emily Post Institute.

"You don't pick the people you work with. It is not like choosing friends or significant others," Post said. "Etiquette is a free tool available to everyone that helps us find common ground in tense situations. It is always best to take a few breaths and check your frustrations at the door. Stay calm, stay solution oriented."