I just received my first flame. Getting real hate mail is pretty exciting.

Plenty of readers have disagreed with me before. One or two have even called me a socialist, or Marxist, or something like that. Even the most passionate e-mails, though, have identified the subject and point of dispute.

Not this one. The first two words of the message were, “You are …” The remaining nouns and verbs don’t belong in a business publication. The message, if you’re curious, described my alleged double-jointedness and unsavory dining habits.

InfoWorld‘s readers are my customers, and I’ve often pointed out that customers are always right.

So I was wrong. Sue me. Change “always” to “usually”. (Not only am I not double-jointed, I haven’t been able to touch my toes without bending my knees since 1961, nor do I eat non-traditional foodstuffs.)

People who provide service to real, paying customers sometimes take calls from people who are a bit testy. That’s part of the job … up to a point. Beyond that point, the caller is abusive and the customer service representative has no obligation to listen.

(For those of you who act this way, some questions: do you think service reps set policy? Do you think they designed the feature you don’t like or the created the defect you’re trying to work around? No? Then why are you yelling and swearing at them? Companies pay these people to solve product-related problems, not to accept the anger and frustration you’ve PKZIPped and sent down the telephone line.)

Your staff members, dealing not with customers but with fellow employees, have no obligation to take abuse either. They do have an obligation to help solve problems, even when the person needing help is less than warm and friendly. Continuing our series on dealing with end-users, this week we talk about one-on-one interactions. Here are some tips that have worked for me in the past. I’m writing them for telephone conversations; they work just as well face-to-face:

Tip #1: Defuse frustration: You won’t have a productive conversation until you get past it. Empathize, and redirect attention away from the emotional context to the actual problem. One good technique: ask for microscopic detail. “I’m sorry you’re having a problem. Let’s see if we can get it fixed. Tell me exactly what you see on the screen.”

Tip #2: Focus on the problem, not the request: A caller may insist on a site visit, even when one isn’t necessary. Neither argue nor obey – redirect attention. Try this: “I’ll need to make sure I understand exactly what’s going on so I can dispatch the right person. Let’s start with what you’re looking at on the screen.”

Tip #3: Gather information first, and don’t argue: The caller really is experiencing difficulty. Find out exactly what the user was trying to accomplish, and exactly how … and the symptoms they’re experiencing now. Remote control software helps a bunch in this situation. If you don’t have it, have the caller walk you through the steps he or she took. At each step, ask the caller if his/her screen shows what yours is showing.

Tip #4: Resolve the problem: You should have a good handle on what the user was trying to accomplish and how. It’s taken awhile, but now you get to apply your technical, as opposed to your interpersonal, skills.

Tip #5: Leave the caller smarter than when he or she called: Once the problem has been fixed, explain what’s happened and what you did in some detail. It takes another minute or two, but if you help that user avoid the next problem, you’ve helped yourself in the long run.

This is a column on management issues, of course, so I get to palm off the little details, like how to actually troubleshoot. That’s where Brian Livingston and Brett Glass get involved. Good luck, pals.