UserConf 2014 – Dealing with a Combative User

Hi there! If you’re reading this page, then you probably saw my talk (or… uh, heard my talk?) at UserConf San Francisco, on dealing with a combative user:


If you enjoyed the talk, and you’d like more resources on the topic, then you’ve come to the right place! First off, here’s the presentation itself. I converted it from Keynote to PowerPoint, so that it can be downloaded as a single file. The slide notes contain the additional information I presented.

Here are a few books that aren’t specifically about customer support, but deal with concepts that are useful when applied to a support setting.

First up, Dan Goleman has an entire series of books on how humans interact with each other. This one is my favorite:

Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, Daniel Goleman

Next, we have two books on effective communication. These are great if you have a delicate issue that you want to discuss with someone:

Nonviolent Communication, Marshall B. Rosenberg
nonviolent communication

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High, Kerry Patterson et al.

crucial conversations

Finally, we have one about the psychological tactics that can be used to manipulate you in your everyday life. This book explains how to spot these tactics and not fall prey to them. It’s not a how-to book, but… well, I’ll be honest, some of the tactics discussed can be useful when dealing with dissatisfied users. Just don’t abuse the newfound power you’ll wield, okay?

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini


And here are some studies that I didn’t get to talk about specifically, but you may find interesting….

Here’s a study on the power of “because.” It’s a useful tool to have in your verbal arsenal when you need to make a small request of a user. (Langer et al, 1978, “The mindlessness of Ostensibly Thoughtful Action: The Role of ‘Placebic’ Information in Interpersonal Interaction,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.)

To elaborate on one of the concepts I brought up in my talk, here’s a study on how emotional suppression can affect someone you’re interacting with. Some customer service manuals advocate responding to customer anger by being flat and emotionless. This is why I think those customer service manuals are wrong, wrong, wrong. (Butler et al, 2003, “The Social Consequences of Expressive Suppression,” Emotion.)

The title of this study sums it up pretty well: “Superfluous Apologies Demonstrate Empathic Concern and Increase Trust.” One topic I had to omit for time was how to apologize. I don’t advocate throwing your company or colleague under the bus (if it’s not your company’s or colleague’s fault the user is angry), so maybe this study will give you some alternative ways you can apologize… and still mean it. (Brooks et al, 2013, “I’m Sorry About the Rain! Superfluous Apologies Demonstrate Empathic Concern and Increase Trust,” Social Psychological and Personality Science.)

This study fascinates me because it’s counterintuitive at first, but then totally makes sense once you get into the explanation. This is why I’m a fan of phrasing requests like this example: “Oh, you’re on Chrome? Hey, can you do me a favor and tell me how your site looks in Safari?” (Jecker & Landy, 2969, “Liking a Person as a Function of Doing Him a Favour,” Human Relations.)

If you’re a “people person,” you probably know this one on an intuitive level. It’s a simple way to build rapport, and all it entails is matching the tone of the user you’re interacting with. If they’re formal, stay formal. If they’re casual, be casual. If they’re foulmouthed and vitriolic… well, uh, don’t be an asshole. Just feel free to throw the occasional “damn” into your conversation (as long as it’s not directed it at the user). (Gueguen et al, 2009, “Mimicry in Social Interaction: Its Effect on Human Judgment and Behavior,” European Journal of Social Sciences.)

What about you? Do you have any studies or tidbits of support ninjutsu that you’d like to share? I love talking about this kind of stuff, so feel free to give me a piece of your mind!


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