Most people with IT problems are experiencing the problem more emotionally, rather than technically or logically. Working on an IT help desk is surprisingly and challengingly closer to therapy than actual troubleshooting. In order to get anywhere with non-technical people, you usually have to make a connection and get them on your side:
Validate their emotions
- Listen carefully to both their words but almost more to their tone of voice. Attempt to figure out how they are feeling. This is easier than it sounds because they have called an IT help desk with a problem, so they are almost certainly feeling some combination of stress, frustration, and maybe anger.
- Don't validate anger, but do say something like, "I can tell you're very frustrated" or "I'm sure I would be really stressed out if I were in your situation" or most gently, "That sounds frustrating". Make sure you're not saying this as if it's a script, but really sympathize with them.
Absolve them of blame
- Even, or maybe especially, when it's "their fault", don't blame them. If you have heard their problem before, that's one way to help them feel better; tell them, "A lot of people call with this problem - obviously the system just doesn't do this thing very well". Or, "I've often thought we could do better in training people how to do this." Or, "I ran into this problem myself and it was very annoying to me."
- If they try to make illogical statements about why they have the problem, validate those, too. "Yes it seems like every year, Bill Gates is trying to make our lives even more difficult while he laughs all the way to the bank".
"I'm sorry you're having trouble today." It's that simple. In one episode, the US version of The Office actually had a whole joke about a character not being able to apologize to a customer.
Let them tell their whole story - no matter how boring and useless
- Seems like a lot of users really want to say their peace:
I woke up and the first thing I noticed was my cornflakes had gone
stale so then I had a great shower with this new soap and the bus ride
was bumpier than usual and when I turned on my computer the screen was
black for about three seconds and then some words came up but then I
saw the pointer and then it went away but it came back and it was blue
but then I saw the internet but then I couldn't Google anything and I
thought I'd better call tech support.
Resist the urge to interrupt them - let them get it all out.
- Interject quietly and briefly to show you're still there: "I see." "I hate it when that happens." "Sounds like the bus needs new shocks".
Listen for when they are ready to troubleshoot
They will either run out of steam or escalate to explosion depending on how well you manage them up to this point. Letting them talk and vent is actually the fastest way to get them to the right place, even though it may seem like it takes forever. Interrupting them to shortcut to the troubleshooting step is not a shortcut, they still have a strong emotional need to share their story, and they will try to come back to it, and they won't be ready to listen until they've had their say.
Get them on your "team"
Once they are done, ask them to join your "team" by saying something like, "Ok, I think we can fix this if you don't mind checking on some things and going through a few steps. Do you have time to work on this now?" That last question might seem crazy since they have called the help desk, but maybe as much as 10% of the time the answer I get is, "No I have to run to a meeting, I just wanted to let you know." That means you can get off the call, and they will be a satisfied customer! If they say yes, they have the time, then they have heard that you're not taking them for granted and you need their help to solve their problem.
Assume they know nothing
People who know a lot about computers tend to understand that most people don't. Start off with really basic stuff like, "Let's go to the Control Panel. To get there click on Start, which is in the lower left side of the screen." If they come back with "Ok I've got the control panel open" then you know you can work a little faster with this person and they probably won't be too annoyed. If you expect them to know how to open the Control Panel and they have no idea what you're talking about, then they are likely to back into a death spiral of emotional turmoil and frustration with how unhelpful you seem to be.
After each instruction and response, continue to assess where they are on the spectrum of computer understanding. You may find yourself saying, "Look at the bottom right side of the keyboard and you should see four keys that have arrows on them. Look at the up arrow and look at the key it is pointing to. It should say "END". Just to the left of the key that says "END" should be a key that says "DELETE" or "DEL". Do you see that?" Be patient. Really, be patient.
Don't try to fix the problem, try to help the customer
Obviously the best way to help the customer is to fix the problem! But sometimes fixing the problem proves to be very difficult or impossible. If things don't progress from one to the next in a fairly orderly fashion, you're going to have to figure out how to "punt" in some way. Common punts sound like this:
- "Is there another computer nearby you can try?"
- "Let's see if a reboot helps." (buys you a little time to think/research)
- "Would it help to e-mail the file to a friend and have them print it?"
- "When do you need this working? We might have to check with [someone else] or this might be part of a larger issue. We might be able to find a workaround for right now."
- "I've opened up a ticket on this and we will keep looking into it. Do you want that ticket number?"
Some customers don't want help, they want to yell
If you're listening patiently and validating quietly and they are escalating, either you're amazingly bad at listening and validating, or the problem isn't you - it's them. When a customer doesn't de-escalate at all, I completely shut up. I say nothing. If they don't start running out of steam and they continue to escalate or the instant they start to attack me when I know I've said nothing that could be perceived as negative in any way, I'm looking for a supervisor and expecting that we will be ending the phone call. This should be very rare. Some people have amazingly bad days before they call you and you can't help them with many things that could be stressing them out that are not computer related. You just have to ask them to call back when they are calm. I think in my 20 years in IT I've had this happen maybe once or twice.
Edit: Response to comments
First, an overall clarification of the focus of my answer. I'll quote here part of the question with emphasis that I have added:
While this wastes my time, and that of the other customers waiting, it's not the main concern of my question. Some (again, especially elderly) customers will become furious at me for not understanding their problem, and deny all of my attempts to clarify. This has led to security being called a couple of times already.
My reading of the question is that the "primary focus" is on de-escalating the situation, preventing "furious" customers, and eliminating the need for security to be called on people. That may or may not be what my answer should focus on or it might not be what the asker is actually looking for, but I have decided to focus on that.
As such, the content of my answer is mainly about de-escalation, helping users calm down and feel like they are being given good customer service so they are comfortable becoming part of the solution. My answer is not about how to troubleshoot IT problems directly, since that doesn't seem to be the biggest issue the asker has. I strongly believe, based on my experience on both sides of support calls, that establishing a positive (albeit temporary) relationship on the call is not just beneficial to solving the underlying IT problem, it's critical. If this is starting to sound like I'm suggesting that IT people need a lot of people skills to do their jobs well, then you're understanding me completely. I myself got into IT because I understand computers better than I understand people, so I sympathize with anyone feeling like it's a big ask to see a "computer job" as a "people job". The bad news is that all jobs are people jobs. So you can't escape it, and you might as well accept it and think about people skills.
Some comments (see the chat link) were about apologies, specifically that they are actually detrimental, patronizing, accepting of blame, or merely a waste of time.
First, (and I've added this above), apologies must be sincere. It is true that an insincere apology will come across patronizing, at best. I agree, if anyone is trying to de-escalate a situation and is considering an insincere apology, they should not do it. An insincere apology is patronizing. A sincere apology is a very powerful statement of sympathy, at least in American culture.
In the US, an apology is not an admission of guilt or fault. There have actually been US Supreme Court cases regarding this. Apologizing for something that is your fault merely opens a door to possible forgiveness. It's sincerely apologizing for something that isn't your fault that is a powerful show of sympathy - for the exact reason that it isn't your fault!
On validating illogical or untrue statements
My answer is not about making the world a better place or making the caller or the asker better people. It's about talking callers "off the ledge" and helping them arrive at an emotional place where troubleshooting can begin. If I may quote Obi-Wan Kenobi: "You'll find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view." By validating another person's "untrue" or "illogical" statements, you are accepting that they have a different point of view and that's ok. I've spent a lot of my life telling people how they are wrong, and I can assure you it's not a way to win friends, influence people, or de-escalate tense support calls.
The tin foil hat crowd who think Bill Gates hates them personally and wants them to lose all of their Word documents might have, maybe, a unique point of view, but they are customers, and if when they aren't, no IT support person is going to ever convince them that they are wrong. The best you can do is get on board their little mental roller coaster for a few minutes and help them out and then get off and be glad most users aren't like them.
On educating callers
My other career is education. I teach guitar and other musical instruments and I tutor in mathematics.
You'll never teach a single fact to an angry caller. Heightened emotions do increase the effectiveness of our memory, but they also filter our perceptions. That means what an angry caller is going to remember very well is how mean you were to them (in their perception). So you have de-escalate if you're going to teach anything.
Effective teaching also requires a connection - a sometimes brief but honest relationship. All of my tips and techniques above are in service of the goal of creating a sincere and effective connection and relationship with the caller. If you think making a connection with an irate caller who needs IT help is hard, try tutoring 13 year olds in Geometry. In both cases, you have to do whatever it takes if you want to actually help.
Finally, the asker has mentioned they are generally short on time and that the callers are frustrated and/or angry. These are not factors conducive to teaching. If the queue is mostly empty and a call comes in from someone who is calm and able to communicate effectively from the first sentence, that's when you can give them a few tips or inside information that will help them in the future.
I highly recommend two books that basically gave me people skills, along with a lot of practice and learning the hard way:
How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie - I know what you're thinking. It sounds like a bunch of cynical manipulation techniques to make you rich. It's not that. This is a great book about dealing with people and I was extremely surprised at how wise it is and how much insight I gained reading it.
The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey - Again, it might sound like a cynical book for salespeople that is trying to capitalize on a trend in self-help. It's not that. This book basically gives you tools and process to become a better person.
Neither book will solve everything, and for some people neither book will solve anything. But they are both worth checking out if you are a computer person trapped in a people person world. Also if you're just a person they might really help.