The situation described takes place in Germany, but is not neccessarily linked to German culture.

I work in IT support at a library with public workstations, and often encounter (mostly elderly) customers who will use nonsensical technobabble to describe their problem, in order to feel in control of the situation. Examples would include a user talking about "uploading the algorithm" while their issue was not being able to eject a USB device when working on a remote desktop server, or calling everything they do with a computer "implementing" something.

This would not be a problem if I could understand the issue they want me to fix. Often we'll spend 10-30 minutes discussing the situation, just to determine what the problem is. 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.

So the problems from their side are:

  • Not realizing their inability to describe a problem, or covering it up with offended/aggressive behaviour
  • Showing disbelief in my technical competence when I can't understand them after extended discussion

And from my side:

  • Not being able to leave the help desk and check the problem on my own most of the time
  • Time pressure (other customers) not allowing me to be as patient and understanding as I could be
  • Becoming rushed and/or patronizing at the end of an 8h shift

I have witnessed those situations with other colleagues too, so it seems to be not necessarily linked to my person. It should be noted that we serve as a help desk for the university owning the library too, and often work with younger students. Therefore, the tone is rarely formal.

How can such incompetent customers be handled professionally and efficiently, and without escalating a nonsensical discussion?


To answer AllTheKingsHorses' questions:

  • security was called by me or colleagues due to the customer becoming too loud for the library, or threatening even. Sometimes security personnel was close and came on their own.
  • customers are students from the affiliated and other universities, as well as random citizens. Anyone can enter the building and ask for help with the local computers or university-related IT problems.
  • the library offers access to the eduroam Wi-Fi network for students and university staff as well as hosting courses, conferences etc. The problems in question mostly arise when talking about local computers, or customers beginning to describe a problem incorrectly that relates to their own device when it could as well happen with our computers.
  • the service is offered as best effort, and if a problem can't be fixed, most customers will understand or look for further assistance somewhere else. The complicated customers do not though, and need to be removed by security. These are the people my question is about.
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    Why can't you leave your desk? What is causing you to stay there? If your job is IT support, isn't that the only thing you should do? – Dan Feb 20 at 17:50
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    I don't see the two most important things mentioned in your question. 1) what are your customer service duties/requirements from the business, and 2) what (if any) agency do you have to set such policies? Both of those things are necessary considerations to a good answer. I'm personally fond of the adage that not every customer's business is worth it (it frequently costs more to provide a product or service to a customer than you can make in profit off them, in which case, they may not be worth having as a customer), but if/when my bosses disagree with that math, I provide my services anyway. – HopelessN00b Feb 20 at 19:51
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    ...and now that I think about it, your question doesn't include anything about you've tried so far to address this, which is problematic. – HopelessN00b Feb 20 at 19:56
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    @Orphevs OK, to summarize: you work in a university library that provides services mostly to students and you're the help desk. I'd assume you're there to support the library staff, not so much the customers? And some random elderly guys (=probably not students?) walk in, try to work on the computers, call you on the phone and shout at you for not helping them with uploading the algorithm and not coming to their desk? And it's so bad that security had to be involved several times? – AllTheKingsHorses Feb 21 at 8:25
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    Then if a machine on another floor is broken, who the heck supports it? Who clears a paper jam? Who plugs back in an unplugged cable? Whoever that is, if eyeballs on screen are required, refer the problem out to them. And eyeballs on screen are required, you can't support windows by talking about it. Unless you're Indian. Are you from Indiana? – Harper Feb 23 at 16:34

12 Answers 12

One of the most useful phrases I ever learned in my hellish time in a helpdesk role was "show me". People suck at describing their problems, but they're generally pretty good at showing what's wrong.

Instead of listening to technobabble for half an hour before the customer gets so mad that you have to call in security, try asking them to show you the problem, and generally, the sooner, the better.

It's so useful, it's generally my first resort when dealing with someone non-technical, or even the very moment I hear anything that strikes me as technobabble or poor descriptive ability. A real time saver, not to mention it spares me the mental anguish of having to listen to painfully tortured descriptions of basic computer functions.

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    Overheard office conversation: coworker 1 says, "It's not working, can you help?" Coworker 2 says, "I'm not good with pronouns, can you please show me exactly what 'it' is?" ;) The key, as you say, is show me. – Wildcard Feb 20 at 20:49
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    @ToddWilcox seems to be in-person... I don’t see how security would need to be called to remove someone from a phone call. – HopelessN00b Feb 20 at 22:59
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    The asker specifies one of their constraints being “Not being able to leave the help desk and check the problem on my own most of the time.” Maybe I misunderstood what that means. – Todd Wilcox Feb 20 at 23:08
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    This is actually worse than 'needs to work over the phone,' it sounds like they need to work in person, in a place where the problem is not occurring. This answer and even remote support won't do much for the OP – John-M Feb 21 at 8:48
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    @ToddWilcox Having people send me MMS messages of errors has saved me many wasted trips and a lot of frustration. Almost everyone carries a camera now, so asking for an image is not really so totally insane. – user60393 Feb 21 at 10:52
up vote 175 down vote

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".

Apologize (sincerely)

"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.

On apologizing

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.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Feb 22 at 16:33
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    “Let them tell their whole story” I think OP mentioned there are other customers in line. – Andrea Lazzarotto Feb 25 at 13:59
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    @AndreaLazzarotto: true, but trying to prevent someone from doing something that they are determined to do will generally take longer than just letting them do it. – Dancrumb Feb 26 at 4:56
  • @AndreaLazzarotto There are always other customers in line. Treating them all with care and respect is good customer service, good business, and good-hearted. – Todd Wilcox Feb 26 at 5:22
  • @ToddWilcox if you let the customer in front of me spend 20 minutes telling the story of their life which is totally irrelevant to their tech issue, you are not treating me with respect. – Andrea Lazzarotto Feb 26 at 12:13

How can such incompetent customers be handled professionally and efficiently, and without escalating a nonsensical discussion?

By remembering that these are your customers, that they are experiencing high levels of stress, and accepting that you have to fix both the customer and the problem.

That takes time.

When you get one of these, accept the fact that it's going to be a 5 - 10 minute (or more) conversation and remain calm. Let them talk as much as they need to. Repeat back to them what they said, but use your own words -- that will give them an emotional boost because it proves you've been listening.

Treat them with patience and respect.

You're not likely going to get any useful information out of them until they've calmed down, so the quicker you can help them do that, the quicker they'll be on their way.

Be on the lookout for X-Y problems. It may be useful to ask them why they came in today, what they hoped to accomplish, and what happened prior to the incident that's causing all the stress.

Keep your own emotions out of it.

Don't take what they say personally. Getting angry makes things worse for both of you. If possible, commiserate with them - "yeah, that particular computer's been giving us problems lately"

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    Thank you for your answer Dan. Sadly, the conversations are way longer, and I can't let other customers wait that long. There also is no time to talk about personal matters. All of the problems my question is about are X-Ys, because the customers unintendedly obfuscate the real issue. My question is not about how to handle X-Ys, but how to save time and reduce friction when working with those customers. I do not take conversations at work personally, and can keep conversations regardless of my emotional state. Dismissing complaints is easy; fixing problems with that is not possible. – Orphevs Feb 20 at 15:16
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    @Orphevs "how to save time and reduce friction" It's counter-intuitive that you have to burn time up front to reduce friction so that you can get things on the right track and then move forward much more quickly. Trying to move faster than the customer will increase friction and actually slow things way down. Your emotional state is not as important to the customer as their emotional state is. The only reason you want to stay calm is to help them become calm. But you being calm yourself isn't enough. – Todd Wilcox Feb 20 at 19:02
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    I think you have to be very careful about repeating back what the customer says. Obviously, you can't do that verbatim. During the initial phase, validating their emotions is a great way to show that you are listening and hearing them. Reading their emotions or their problem back to them after interpreting and rewording them really shows you are listening. So yes, reading back is good, but not verbatim. "I click on the thing and it goes black" followed by "Ok you click on the thing and it goes black" sounds more like condescension than anything else. – Todd Wilcox Feb 20 at 19:05
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    @ToddWilcox - good point. I was assuming a paraphrase, but didn't specifically mention it. – Dan Pichelman Feb 20 at 19:08

The approach most online bugtrackers require is also useful here, unless the customer is too belligerent. Try asking them the three basic questions:

What did you do?
What did you want to happen?
What happened instead?

This helps the user convey to you quickly where they are and how they got there. Otherwise you could be stuck helping them access webmail in a browser while they are actually struggling with an email client, or going through the settings UI while they’re actually launching the app using its installation package every time—reinstalling it and resetting settings, or whatever.

  • You could add: Can you take photos of it? – gnasher729 Jun 28 at 6:26

By using the word "incompetent" you suggest that the person should be able to do something but cannot and it is their fault and their responsibility. This is not the case.

Keep in mind that YOUR PURPOSE is to help the patrons with their problems. The library is not like stackoverflow where you can downgrade or dismiss someone because they aren't asking 'the right" question. There is no interface for "handling" this. You must simply make a human connection.

People can detect when someone is not being empathetic, and many take a lack of empathy as a personal offense. This will certainly escalate your problems dramatically.

Calling security on someone at a LIBRARY helpdesk is unimaginably disruptive (and could easily end with your termination if you call security on the wrong person). Why not bend the rules a little and help the person at their workstation before it gets that bad??

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    By using the word "incompetent" you suggest that the person should be able to do something but cannot and it is their fault and their responsibility. I think you're reading too much into that. "Incompetent" can be an insult, it can also be a an objective, factual assessment of someone's skills. I am an incompetent salesman, for example. ...and I'm happy to say so when the prospect of interacting with customers comes up. (If only it always worked and they'd leave me to deal with our servers instead.) – HopelessN00b Feb 21 at 1:26
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    @HopelessN00b, The word "incompetent" is used to describe someone who does not meet an expected level of ability (competence). Since these are patrons which aren't expected to know anything in particular, the word does not apply. For those of you which aren't native English speakers that nuance might be lost. In any case, it is never OK to be dismissive of a customer. – teego1967 Feb 21 at 2:06
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    incompetent adjective 1. not competent; lacking qualification or ability; incapable Note that there is nothing in there about an expected level of competence. I say again, "Incompetent" can be an insult, it can also be a an objective, factual assessment of someone's skills. – HopelessN00b Feb 21 at 2:10
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    @HopelessN00b: At least in common English usage, I don’t think incompetent has much meaning without an implied expected level of skill — without it, we’re all incompetent to some degree in every skill, but you wouldn’t hear the word used in that sense. The OP is based in Germany, so their use of the word might not carry the same connotations, but in this context I think it’s at least worth bringing up — the OP seems to have an expectation that customers be able to explain their computer problems using accurate terminology, and that probably isn’t reasonable. – Paul D. Waite Feb 21 at 8:49
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    @PaulD.Waite: same in German. From my native German point of view, the insulting/condescending part is not whether the customer is competent or not, but that OP shifts blame to their customers. Of whom IMHO in a public library setting no particular level of competence should be expected in the first place. – cbeleites Feb 21 at 23:15

I would suggest a different approach nonetheless:

  • it is harder to explain helpdesk is done in a best-effort basis if there are not warnings about that in the computer area - state help is dependent on the work load/on having available personnel;

  • Make them fill out a paper form to get assistance, and make some questions there. By the time they reach to you they will have a more organised chain of thought. While counterintuitive, this can justified by having lack of personnel. On the plus side, it may defer the resolution of the problem until the next visit;

  • Have a place for leaving/depositing the form for those not willing to wait;

  • You do not need and should not leave your place to see what they are doing - employ remote control software;

  • Cannot University enlist the help of volunteers?

  • Start registering the number of these occurrences in a spreadsheet and expose the problem to a superior. Or show them a stack of forms to come across your point, people visualize the volume of objects pretty well;

  • Try to find out at which level of malfunction stops being the Library problem, and starts being the IT department problem.

IMO, the form idea also doubles as a psychological effect of reducing the frustration of people leaving because you do not have time for them; I would leave there a field for Comments, or even service evaluation for people to vent their frustrations there instead of doing it on you.

Minority report here. I've done helpdesk support for many years. For any but the simplest things, using voice to troubleshoot a visual problem is dreadfully inefficient. This fact is obvious to anyone.

They have set you up to fail

In-person phone support is a contradiction in terms. People expect you to step away from your desk and just look at their problem. That is a reasonable expectation. So when you say "I can't leave this desk", you actually are being a jerk. Their anger is entirely reasonable.

All of your problems flow from this.

This is the origin point of all your customers' irrationality. This is the reason it takes you a half hour just to figure out what a problem is.

The problem is, all due respect your attitude is that this is normal and everyone should put up with it. No one should put up with it. This is a completely unacceptable job situation. I've done IT for 20 years, and the rules you operate under, I would not tolerate that for even half a day. It is unprofessional and untenable.

Do a twofer: apologize and transfer blame

The goal is to first to connect with the customer, and second redirect their anger to where it actually does belong. Search for an opportunity to say:

I apologize. It really works best to see what you're doing. But my manager will not allow me to leave the [desk, floor, etc].

This may solve itself: ”Well I can use a workstation closer to you, then."

When a customer demands to see your manager, you are obliged to help them; it is totally inappropriate to refuse. That puts you in the clear when the angry mob arrives at your boss's door.

This moves the point of pain to the origin of the decision. If things are working properly, that should get the policy changed right quick.

It's also possible the manager will "double down" on the policy and give you rules even more irrational. Get it in writing; s/he won't want to give it so Comey him/her. Send an email honestly capturing the conversaton.

Now if the rules are unreasonable enough, you can escalate it to HR. It's also possible s/he would fire you, but that would be a mercy. S/he would not have real cause so your social benefits should be protected.

Don't fix the customer. The customer is not broken.

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    This is the correct approach, not the approach taken in German public service (these two are more often than not diametral). If you do this in a public service setting, there may be fallout. – Alexander Feb 24 at 12:52
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    Seconding that. Also remember that it is, implicitly or more likely even explicitly, op's job to keep people with technical problems from management. That is a reasonable thing to expect. It's why they pay someone else to do that job: they might simply not have the time to talk to every irritated user of technical infrastructure. So by opening up that door of people storming to management, op might already be significantly underperforming. Remember, we're talking about people that security had to remove, not people in a reasonable conflict with the it desk guy. – Marcus Müller Feb 25 at 12:17
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    "Get it in writing": op is the lowest end of the food chain, here. Not in a position to make demands on getting details of work instructions in writing. Again, op's job is to a) help people and b) keep people (thus, work) away from other people. Not to increase bureaucracy. – Marcus Müller Feb 25 at 12:19
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    Oh, and that might be a German thing: people will get angry when you start deferring blame. We have a problem, we don't care about any of your office politics, and spare us from your small talk. This is a bit different from example the U.S., or very different than for example India. – Marcus Müller Feb 25 at 12:26

A strategy I've used when a customer is having trouble conveying the nature of their issue is to ask them simply to describe what it is they currently have on their screen. If they resist, explain that you understand the problem they are trying to solve, but you need a frame of reference regarding their current situation, in English I would use the phrase "so we are both on the same page". Try to frame this as an issue of your understanding, rather than a problem of their explanation, intentionally pull the blame on to yourself, even if they are talking nonsense. Whenever they drift from explaining what they are looking at, gently ask them to resume describing what they are currently seeing.

As the user reads/describes the screen, this can often give some insight as to what it is they are in the middle of doing or trying to do. It can also help you "translate" their use of terminology, for example you might realize that to them every icon, button or thing they see on the screen is an "algorithm" and "uploading" means plugging in an external device.

If nothing jumps out as a problem, ask them to take the steps that are causing the problem, and describe each action as they go, both their physical actions and what they see on the screen at each step.

By having them step through it this way, you can often get past their nonsensical use of terminology to see what it is they are actually trying to accomplish and where the problem lies.

If they get frustrated and question your competence, try to take it in stride and use an analogy that might help them understand why this is challenging for you. For example, you might say this is a lot like a mechanic trying to fix your car over the phone, even though he may fix it easily in person, it is challenging to diagnose the issue over the phone, politely ask them for patience.

Sometimes, particularly with older people, it may be useful to "take a break" and discuss something unrelated to the problem in a friendly manner. Ask about their trip into the library today, how the weather is, etc. This idle small talk can go a long way to building a bit of a rapport, even for a brief call.

First, you need to talk to your boss and figure a few things out:

  • What are the tasks you're expected to do? Taking care of IT systems in the library (patching, administration, hardware, etc.), helping library staff, helping customers, ...? Is it even your job to support elderly guys who have problems uploading the algorithm?
  • What are your priorities and what takes precedence over other tasks? You seem to be stressed out because lots of people want something at the same time - find out what your priorities are and don't get stressed over lower priority things.
  • What are the types of computer activities you should and shouldn't give support for? What's within your scope and what isn't? Say someone wants to "upload an algorithm from a USB drive to a library computer" (= install a program there) - is that even allowed?
  • Is there a maximum time you should spend with a customer before you apologise and let them know you can't help them? (Since your service is best effort I assume you don't have to help all customers until they're satisfied but you should support as many customers as possible - and not just one guy for hours.)
  • What's the reason for not allowing you to leave your desk to help the customers? That seems rather counterintuitive and unpractical. It's probably keeping you from helping customers effectively, so what's the reason for it and can exceptions be made?

I realise that in oeffentlicher Dienst (which I assume a German university library is) things can be... less than goal-oriented and purposeful. But you need to get your workload prioritised and organised so that it doesn't constantly stress you out. Only then are you in an open enough frame of mind to help your customers.

Then you can

  • Ask them what their goal is. What's the purpose of uploading the algorithm? Sending a "letter" to their relatives with the latest pictures of their nice? Handing in a course assignment? Downloading the internet to read it at home?
  • Try very hard not to accidentally imply that they're stupid.
  • Try your best for X minutes (as agreed with the boss) and then politely break off the conversation
  • Let security do their job if they get agitated at that point.
  • This is quite a good approach IMO...albeit your typical library manager might not be interested on the subject. It should also not be the role of the library assistant to teach IT to users. – Rui F Ribeiro Feb 21 at 11:15
  • 2
    @RuiFRibeiro Indeed, the library manager may not be interested in... managing their employees (telling them what to work on and what not). But then the environment is so dysfunctional that the OP needs a crash course in manipulative office politics asap... or maybe a saner job. – AllTheKingsHorses Feb 21 at 12:00
  • Try very hard not to accidentally imply that they're stupid. - I think that sentence would be better without the accidentally in there as I read it as if it would be permissible to deliberately imply they're stupid. – Andrew Morton Feb 21 at 13:52

The first step is to not answer their question by figuring out what they mean. If someone said, "I'm trying to implement an algorithm." You answer it by asking, "What is it you're trying to do?" Try to take control of the situation by asking questions that you know you can solve based on what they're saying. Simple questions like, "What is it you're trying to do?" And "What error messages you received?"

Just remember common problems they might face. Printing issues, password lockouts, etc and try to figure out if they are facing one of those problems without asking them to explain their poor techno terms.

You may not be dealing with rational people

What you are describing sounds like someone with a substance abuse problem or mental illness that is causing them to be disconnected from reality. If so this could explain both their highly unusual description of their problem (e.g. a technically illiterate person isn't likely to call ejecting a USB drive "uploading the algorithm"--they aren't likely to know the word "algorithm", and besides ejecting and uploading are fundamentally different), and their out of proportion emotional reaction to you not understanding them.

What to do if they're not acting rationally

If this is the case, you should focus on defusing a potentially volatile situation, not on solving their problem.

You can't help someone see reason if they are detached from reality in that moment, and it's likely to just agitate them, as it appears to be doing. This could have dangerous consequences for those present.

Your supervisor may be able to provide resources or training on how to deal with situations like this, or may have specific policies that you should follow. I would recommend sharing your concerns with them.

I understand that they may be speaking in gibberish which is annoying and frustratingly difficult to the point of comical at times but there aren't really that many things one expects library computers/Wi-Fi being used for by elderly / laymen people.

Young people / students and staff should have much more experience with technology, even though you can't expect that either.

You have to understand, they have an issue with technology that is very new to them and seek your help or are unfamiliar with the systems they are offered to use.

There are many interpersonal skills required of you to be their guide!

If you're having a hard time with many different people to find out what they wanted to achieve or what they did, despite your honest attempts at doing so, I would like to respectfully submit that customer relations may not be your strongest suit and you should find a way to concentrate on what you're best at.

It seems to me that you may be fairly unexperienced in customer relations. Many of the things mentioned in previous answers should be second nature to you after some time dealing with customers directly.

If you can, ask someone senior to train you or share experience (not necessarily from your colleagues).

At the very least create a list of immediate questions that you reckon will make you understand their problem within the first 1-2 minutes after their initial help request.

I'm surprised your supervisor / the university didn't provide you with such a thing.

protected by Jane S Feb 25 at 4:52

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