Tips on how to deal with disgruntled users

This is something I’ve been wanting to write about for a while. In many community driven support venues, I see some bad patterns in the way users are treated. People who may be knowledgeable about Firefox end up giving bad user support, because they’re not being empathetic or approaching support with the intent of helping users.

Reasons for this?

  • Even with real names, many people behave less empathetic on the internet. It’s too easy to forget that the person you are talking to is a real human.
  • The people helping are mostly volunteers, who don’t feel obligated to be nice, or represent Mozilla.
  • Also with volunteers, many are involved in support simply because they know the technical solution to some issues, and have no formal training in support.

Those factors tend to create a community of geeks lacking the social skills to help novice users. Most people in the community just haven’t considered this. If a fellow user is being uncivil, it’s natural to flame back.

It’s important to remember:

  • Empathy: If you have a problem with your cable, and call your cable company tech support, how would you like to be treated? They would never say “PEBCAK” or “RTFM“.
  • The user is having a problem with Firefox, and it’s obviously of some importance to them, because they made the effort to find the support venue, register, and post about it. If they’ve gone that extent, we should expect a level of frustration. It would be nice if most users posting in a support forum were calm and civil, but that’s not the nature of the beast.

I’m not saying the customer is always right; I’m saying don’t argue with them. Here are some tips everyone can use when giving technical support:

  • Remind yourself of your purpose there. It should be to help others, not to show off your knowledge of Firefox. Don’t expect to be treated like royalty by users, just because you’re helping them. “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you” does not fly with software users. If you don’t think you’re getting enough appreciation, let it be known to the forum manager, not the user.
  • Packaging, packaging, packaging! Almost any criticism of the user can be phrased in a way that appears helpful rather than confrontational. If your mind says “How in the world am I supposed to help you, when you provide no details and no URL? I’m not a mind-reader“, then say “We’ll need some more info about your Firefox setup. Here are the details we need and how to provide them…” There’s a big difference between telling a user he/she should have searched the web before posting, and letting them know that they can search the web before posting.
  • You can calm a user down by explaining things. Frustration comes from lack of understanding. A couple of years ago, I went to see my dentist about a pain I was having. He showed me an x-ray of my tooth, explained what the problem was and why it was happening. He then told me what he planned to do to fix the problem, warned me of any side-effects, and told me how much it would cost. I walked out of there feeling much more confident and relaxed about the situation. I also thought “So much of that applies to user support“. Instead of simply giving the user instructions on how to fix a problem, explain what you think the cause of the problem probably is, and what the solution is. Then tell them how to carry out the solution.
  • If you’re not having the same problem as the user, say so. It doesn’t directly help the user, but it shows that you’re making an effort to help, which the user will appreciate. It shows that the problem may not be a bug, which will discourage other users from chiming in just to rant about the product. It encourages people to give details, which a good user support person loves like crack.
  • Act as if you are talking to the user in-person.
  • Don’t get hung up on protocol. This is something I see a lot of in newsgroups. If the user starts a new thread to respond to your reply in the original thread, or puts the entire question in the subject and nothing in the message body, mention it, but don’t focus on it. That takes focus away from the issue they posted about. Better yet, don’t mention it at all until after you’ve solved their problem. At that point, they will have gained some respect for what you have to say.
  • If the user just wants to argue, disengage. Some users just want to rant. It’s good to offer to help and direct them where to submit feedback, but if you’ve already done that and they continue to rant, leave it alone.

Quantity vs quality is hard. With SUMO focusing on making sure every question gets answered, making those answers better quality can take time away from another user getting any answer at all. One good way to solve that is snippets that provide good detailed explanations, instructions, and links. Right now, you can use an extension called Clippings, which allows you to automatically paste canned responses you’ve saved. It works on both Firefox and Thunderbird, so you can use it on web-forums as well as mailing lists and newsgroups. You can find a list of canned responses to use on the Mozilla wiki. Soon the SUMO support forum will have canned responses built in.

What should Mozilla do when a volunteer is not being empathetic?

That’s a natural extension to the above issue. I have some scattered thoughts on that. I still need to organize them, and will probably start a thread in the SUMO community forum to discuss.

If you’ve made it this far into this blog post, thanks for reading.