How Can I Politely Let Customers Know I Can’t Help Them?

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about how to handle calls for assistance that aren’t really part of the work.

Question: A couple of months ago I got a new job as a system design architect. That is basically a fancy way of saying that I install smart home technology and audio systems. We put in a lot of Televisions for home theaters and there are a lot of people that believe we are like TV repairmen.

We get calls all the time when people cannot get their TVs to work correctly whether it is a problem with the technology that we put in or if it is a problem with another company. I can’t count how many times we are called about cable boxes not working but they call us instead of the cable box provider. That’s like calling an electrician when you have a leaking kitchen sink. It doesn’t make much sense to me.

A couple of weeks ago there was a customer who called us because he could not figure out how to change the batteries in the remote for his TV. My co-worker and I were on the phone with him for an hour and a half trying to explain to him how to do it. It seemed like everything we were saying was just flying right over his head.

My question is how can I, or my company in general, give better explanations for stuff like this? How can we explain to someone that this kind of thing is not really a problem with our technology without sounding rude or frustrated? How can we cut down on calls like this and still make customers happy?

Hello and thank you for your question about how to handle the frustrations involved with people requesting information you are not able to provide or are not responsible for providing. It may be that once someone has met you in their home when you have installed equipment, they think of you as the guru for all things technical. If they haven’t met you, it may be that they trust a “system design architect” more than a random customer service representative. Perhaps your phone system or someone in the company routes calls to your department rather than a more appropriate group. I can well imagine it causes frustration for you and I know it causes frustrations for customers who are calling you.

This question would be a great one to discuss with your supervisor or manager and other team members you respect. There may be company protocols, developed in the past but not given to you, that would be helpful. Or, your bosses may have a preferred way for you to deal with such situations. They may not realize the number and nature of all the calls you receive. If you ask about it with a tone of wanting to represent the company in the best possible way, rather than only sounding frustrated, you will present yourself positively at the same time you get advice.

It seems to me there should be some information on your company’s website and printed material to guide clients to the right resources according to their concerns. It might reduce the number of questions you receive. Or, if your company wants to be the one-stop shop for every problem about anything even slightly related to their product, perhaps they could hire one or more people to do nothing but handle and route questions. That person could refer callers to appropriate department, such as yours, for technical issues, but handle generic questions like how to install batteries, how to pay bills, where to find serial numbers, etc. They could be given scripts and perhaps be able to send email images or text images, to help callers better understand instructions. (You may want to try that as well.)

If, in spite of all efforts to reduce the number of frustrating calls, you find yourself talking to someone who is confused or who becomes resistant to your advice, here are a few things to consider:

(1.) Acknowledge the challenge of communicating about technical issues by phone. “I know it can be challenging to figure out something like this over the phone, so let’s walk through it together.” (Or something similar.)

(2.) Start by asking what they have done so far and write it down as they tell you. If they say they followed instructions in the owner’s manual and it didn’t work, you can encourage them to tell you the steps they took. “It will help me understand the problem better if I can verify the steps you’ve taken.”

Hopefully it is easy for you to access owner’s manuals, so you can see what they have used as a resource. A friend of mine used his owner’s manual, but the images and letters were so small he couldn’t read it. Once he put aside the paper document and looked at it on-line, he could enlarge it and quickly understood how to complete the programming of his universal remote. That may help your customers as well.

(3.) When you make suggestions, use non-technical words when possible or explain the technical words you use. Keep in mind that the technical words and phrases you know so well may seem like (or be) a foreign language to the person to whom you are talking. Polarity, receiver, terminal, transformer, ecosystem, network, host, etc., may seem basic to you, but not to others.

Don’t assume clients who own technological equipment will surely know some of the most basic things about technology, because many people do not.

Three phrases that will help you translate and interpret effectively are: “For example…..” and “Another way to say it is…” And, “By that I mean…”

As you give instructions, have the customer say it back to you. For example: “First you should find the battery compartment. It will have indentations on it and an arrow to show which way to slide it out. The arrow is pointing in the direction you need to push or pull on the compartment door. Tell me when you have found the door and tell me what you’re doing as you slide it open.”

Keep in mind that the customer has probably tried on his own and is frustrated when he calls about his problem. He may resent needing to call or he may feel embarrassed about it. He may have made some elementary mistake and keeps rushing to get it over with, so he makes the same mistakes repeatedly. Asking him to say what he is doing will help slow him down. An occasional supportive phrase will help as well. “We’re making progress.” “We’ll get this done.” Once we get past this part it should come together more easily.”

(4.) At some point you may need to apologize for not being able to help on the phone and say that an on-site response for an issue is not part of the services you can provide. You can suggest they ask a family member or friend who can sit with them to look at the problem first hand. Or, you could suggest they take a break and try again, following instructions exactly, then send you an email with the steps they’ve taken and perhaps a photo if that would help.

(5.) You may have occasional situations when you need to stop the call, at least temporarily. “Mr. Anderson, we’ve been working on this for over thirty minutes. It’s sometimes helpful to take a short break and come back to it. Would you like for me to call you or do you want to call me, after you’ve had time to review some of what we’ve tried?”

(6.) You may need to say, at the very beginning, that as much as you would like to help, the issue he’s asking about is not part of the services provided by your company. Your manager may have an approved “script” for that response.

The bottom line is that whatever you do should have the approval of your boss and the company. They may want you to keep trying, no matter how long it takes, or they may not want you to use your time on anything not directly related to your work. So, start by talking about it and asking for advice from someone who may have more experience with it than you.

Best wishes to you with this matter. We would be interested in knowing if you, your coworkers and your managers, develop effective ways to respond in the frustrating situations you describe, or if you find ways to route service requests differently.

Tina Lewis Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.