Happy help desk techs? It can happen...

According to an article published in Psychology Today’s blog The Squeaky Wheel titled “The Last Bullying Frontier”, call-center employees often experience as many as 10 hostile encounters a day including mean personal insults, cursing, screaming, hangups and threats.

Guy Winch, the author of the blog, writes, “Dehumanizing call-center employees and treating them as emotional punching bags represents the kind of societal bullying that should be as intolerable as any other form of bullying we decry today. It is a behavior that causes staggering financial losses to companies and untold emotional and psychological ones to tens of thousands of our fellow Americans.” This compassionate perspective should be expanded to include anyone who provides “anonymous” support direct to customers. 

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like customer behavior is going to change any time soon, and most companies are a long ways away from enforcing policies that protect their representatives’ interests over their customers. So help desk techs are often on their own when it comes to figuring out how to keep their sanity in an ongoing hostile environment.

This article provides tips for managing the stress that comes from what can be one of the most abusive jobs in any industry.

Managing Negative Emotions

Professional customer service is hard to provide when you’re struggling to keep strong emotions in check. Here are some strategies for deflecting the most common ones for help desk staff:

Know your support personality -- Each of us have individual strengths that we can call upon when dealing with difficult customers. You may be charming, or funny, friendly, someone who enjoys repetition, a good listener, easy going, positively perky, or highly resourceful in fixing problems fast. You may also be sensitive to perceived criticism and therefore likely to take other people’s stuff personally, or relatively oblivious to how other people feel about your words and actions. 

Master the role -- Expertly meeting customer expectations is a powerful strategic tool for managing your stress level on the job.

A finely-calibrated ability to keep your cool will prevent burnout, and keep you in a psychological place where you will be able to provide good support in the most challenging circumstances.

Getting honest feedback from trusted colleagues, reviews at work, and your own self-discovery will equip you with self-confidence to handle each call according to your particular skill set.

Adapting to change -- Help desk centers are highly dynamic environments. On a daily basis, you may come to work and find you’ve been moved to a different workspace, your title has been changed, you’ve been transitioned to a different team, or even a different location.

If you’re someone who struggles with frequent change (most of us are), it’s important to think of yourself as constant and stable, so that you are not shaken by outside chaos. Try carrying a totem or charm with you that represents you, and put it in front of you when you’re at work. Consider reading up on Zen perspectives that encourage not getting attached to anything material.

Beware the cultural imperative - Attitudes can be contagious -- and lethal to a career. You may find yourself torn with wanting to fit in and wanting to do a good job while your fellow employees try and bring you down. Intentionally or unintentionally, others with low morale will resent you because they can’t stand to see someone thriving in an environment that is toxic to them.

Decide that you will not let their attitude rub off on you, keep your mouth shut when other people are complaining or gossiping, and look for the best in every person or you may get sucked in. Find the other positive people in the group, and stick with them.

Create your own sphere of influence -- Establish an environment of positivity around you as much as possible at work:

  • Keep pictures of you having fun with family and friends in your wallet and pull them out when you’re having a tough day.

  • Write down quotes and affirmations that make you feel good and keep them in your wallet so you can read them between calls.

  • Create an “attitude of gratitude” bank in your mind, and “deposit” thoughts about things you’re grateful for -- especially after particularly negative interactions with customers.

  • Keep a log of the ridiculous, offensive things customers say so that you can empty your mind of them each day and burn it later.

Let bullies be bullies -- It may be another hundred years before we can expect to have our own private force fields to protect us from unwelcome attacks, but imagining you have one can deflect any arrow. Put your Teflon-coating each morning before work. When you leave at the end of your shift, you can turn your force field off and watch all the negativity evaporate, leaving you unscathed.

Take the high road -- This way you’ll always feel good about yourself, even when customers are abusive. Stay calm, and most customers will appreciate that you gave them the opportunity to express their frustration without striking back and turning the issue into a battle.

Give what you want to get -- Respect for others, especially when they are just a voice on a phone or typing words online, can be hard to sustain, especially if you aren’t treated with respect at work by colleagues, superiors, and/or customers.

It gets even more difficult if mutual respect wasn’t understood in your home growing up, and you weren’t taught how to be respectful enough of yourself and others. The more research you do into understanding how to respect yourself and others, the more you’ll be able to keep frustration from boiling over. 

Read more about the importance of respect and how to give and receive it

The best way to channel respect is...

Revive your sense of shared humanity -- Keep in mind that you don’t know  customers’ immediate circumstances. They could have just been chewed out by their boss, been asked for a divorce, be very ill but still having to work to pay the bills, deeply shy, suicidal, or are often bullied by customers or colleagues at work. They could be a highly influential politicians or corporate executives on vacation, being abused by a spouse or parent, or homeless. By respecting the fact that you don’t know their path, and where they are on their journey, it makes it easier to relate to people and treat them as fellow humans.

Connect human to human -- Make an effort to connect with each customer on a human level, and listen carefully to what they’re truly asking of you - compassion, expertise, effectiveness, and a little humor. Relating with your customers in this way will help relieve not only the whining, but your irritation. If you’re so far gone that this feels like an impossibility, it may be time to look at a job change.

What tips do you have for keeping a positive mindset in a negative situation at work? Post your suggestions below...


Ellen Berry is Content Director for Myndbend. Her background is in website development, graphic design, career development, project management, entrepreneurship, technical writing, and journalism. She has worked for small start-ups, Fortune 500 companies and nonprofits, in fields including biomedical research and development, IT, finance, telecommunications, publishing and digital media. Her articles are frequently published on high profile websites such as USAToday, ScientificAmerican, TechRepublic and MonsterWorking.