Customer Service on the Titanic

James Cameron’s film Titanic, now out in stunning 3D, gives us a glimpse into the customer service practices of the time and raises the question—have customer service practices evolved or devolved over the last one hundred years? In my book The Squeaky Wheel I discuss the history of complaints in a section titled The Golden Age of Effective Complaining (Chapter 1). One hundred years ago, complaints were used as transactional tools. They were voiced to resolve problems and therefore they were taken seriously both by people who complained and by the recipients of those complaints. In contrast, today, we use complaints primarily as opportunities to vent our frustrations. As a result we tend to elicit defensiveness in the recipients of our complaints far more often than we do solutions and resolutions.

Titanic depicts obvious differences in the customer service afforded to First Class passengers versus that afforded to those in Steerage. First Class passengers were given top notch customer service where the customer was always right and the staff made every possible effort to address any complaint or dissatisfaction they uttered. In short, customers were treated with the utmost respect. When Jack, dressed in ‘First Class’ clothes, approaches the First Class dining room with Molly Brown, a steward opens the door and greets him with a respectful, “Good evening, Sir!”

The conditions in Steerage however were very different. As opposed to managing customers’ complaints and requests, (after all, steerage passengers were paying passengers), staff managed the customers themselves, as if they, not their complaints or requests, were the problem. When Jack returns to the First Class dining room to see Rose the next day, this time in his regular clothes, the same steward stops him with a nasty look, “You’re not supposed to be in here!” The steward could have said, “I’m sorry Sir but I cannot let you in”. Instead he ignores Jack’s requests and says “Come along you!” and escorts him out.

This is a phenomenon we see all too often in hotels today (floating ones a swell). Although we expect to be treated as First Class passengers, we are often treated as though we are in Steerage (for an example, read customer service expert Kate Nasser’s description of a recent encounter with a hotel manager).

James Cameron has an amazing eye for detail and an obvious appreciation of customer service. Indeed, one of the last things Jack says to Rose (jokingly) as he floats in the icy waters of the Atlantic, moments before he dies is, “I intend to write a strongly worded letter to the White Star Line about all this.”

Do you think Customer Service has evolved? How often do you feel you’re given first class customer service and how often are you made to feel as though you’re in steerage? Feel free to comment.

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter http://twitter.com/guywinch

Picture Perfect Complaints

Not all pictures are worth a thousand words. In fact, when it comes to the media’s coverage of my work as a complaining psychology expert, a striking phenomenon has developed—the use of one thousand correct words and one very incorrect picture. Specifically, I believe strongly that complaints should be transactional communications in which we set aside the need to vent our frustrations unproductively in favor of communicating calmly and respectfully and getting a result. To be effective complainers we need to forgo being ‘right’ (even if we are) and instead choose to be ‘wise’ (be getting what we want). To strengthen our relationships we should avoid trying to ‘score points’ against our partner (which will only make them resentful and lead to an argument) and try a kinder and gentler approach that motivates them to change their behavior and feel closer to us as a result.

But before we examine how the media have covered these principles, I should point out that I am grateful the media covered my book The Squeaky Wheel at all, let alone that they took the time to get things right in their descriptions. It is only their choice of images that I am lamenting here. For example:

CBS News online used this helpful hint for couples from my book:

Make eye contact

Especially when it comes to resolving marital complaints, it's essential to make good eye contact. Gazing into each other's eyes during difficult conversations helps promote open-mindedness and good will. Scientists       who study marriage have shown that when a husband maintains his wife's gaze while discussing complaints, both members of the couple are happier.

Nice tip, isn’t it? Now here’s the image they used for the story:

Woman’s Day wrote this important tip for dealing with customer service representatives:

The situation: Your brand-new cell phone isn’t working.

You’re Tempted to: Angrily confront a store sales associate. “Being too aggressive shuts down a person from helping you,” says Dr. Winch.

Instead: Act kindly. Research shows it’s the number-one thing that inspires people to help others, says Dr. Winch. Also, be clear about the resolution you want (say, a replacement phone). It’s easier for someone to respond when she knows what’s expected, says Dr. Winch.

I was thrilled they used this quote as I truly believe we mistreat customer service reps far too often. And the image they used to reinforce the point of speaking softly and kindly:

 

Lifehacker.com has mentioned my writings several times over the past year, most recently mentioning my Complaint Sandwich technique in which the actual complaint is sandwiched between two compliments or positive statements.

Master complainer Guy Winch, author of The Squeaky Wheel, has an easy way of making your complaints more effective: make a complaint sandwich.

The image they used to convey these positive expressions:

The Toronto Sun summed it all up nicely:

Winch says that the trick is to complain in a way that does not trigger the other person's defenses, and to do so in a manner that actually motivates them to help us resolve our problem.

And the image they used to sum up how to avoid triggering defensiveness:

Admittedly, if you were to search Google images for ‘complaints’ you would be hard pressed to find sweet and lovely photos of two people smiling at one another. I will also admit that I too have used certain images to portray the dark side of complaining, for example I used this image in an article I wrote for Psychology Today about how families could make Thanksgiving less tense:

In my defense, I thought the picture was hilarious.

But if you want the real skinny on effective complaining, read my book The Squeaky Wheel. And be warned—it doesn’t have any pictures.

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

What Marital and Customer Service Complaints Have in Common

Customers and marital partners have much in common when it comes to their complaints. As I explain in my book The Squeaky Wheel, the same psychological forces get triggered in our minds when we have a complaint, regardless of whether it’s directed at a company or at our loved ones. In both situations we get so intimidated by the gauntlet of conversations and arguments that await us that we often choose to do nothing (which has real world as well as psychological consequences; we don’t resolve the matter and we feel frustrated and helpless about it as well). When we do choose to speak up, both consumers and people in relationships share a journey that can have eerie similarities.

Following is a side by side (more like row by row) comparison of conversations involving a consumer complaint (about a toaster oven that keeps malfunctioning) and a marital complaint (about a husband that keeps forgetting to clean the garage).

Stating the Complaint:

Customer [to the representative]: I purchased the toaster oven because it has an automatic timer but the timer simply doesn’t do what it’s supposed to. Every time it looks like it’s working, it starts whining and stops.

Representative: I’m sorry you’re having trouble with…the toaster oven. That must be frustrating for you.

Wife [to her husband]: You promised to clean the garage months ago but you simply don’t do what you’re supposed to. Every time you look like you’re working, you start whining and stop.

Husband: I’m sorry you’re having trouble with…the garage. That must be frustrating for you.

Explaining the Problem:

Representative: So, you’re upset because the toaster over just stops working?

Customer: Of course I am! Sometimes I give it a gentle smack and it starts working again, but that only lasts for a few minutes.

Husband: So you’re upset because I just stop working?

Wife: Of course I am! Sometimes I give you a gentle smack and you start working again, but that only lasts for a few minutes.

Expressing Our Feelings:

Customer: I get so angry I can’t help yelling. It’s infuriating to watch it shut down, sit there and do nothing. It’s useless! Just useless!!

Representative: I’m sorry but I’m going to have to ask you to lower your voice.

Customer: Don’t tell me to lower my voice…hello…? Did you just hang up on me? Hello!!

Wife: I get so angry I can’t help yelling. It’s infuriating to watch you shut down, sit there and do nothing. You’re useless! Just useless!!

Husband: I’m sorry but I’m going to have to ask you to lower your voice.

Wife: Don’t tell me to lower my voice…hello…? Did you just walk away from me? Hello!!

Of course, there are ways to avoid these kinds of outcomes by learning effective complaint skills (and for those on the customer service side of things) effective complaint management skills. Thankfully, The Squeaky Wheel is now in paperback (and eBook), which means that for about $10 the secrets of our complaining psychology can be at your fingertips. You could learn how to complain effectively to companies, colleagues, friends, and loved ones…or you could just clean the garage yourself…

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

The 5 Most Read Customer Service Articles of 2011

Five articles were read by more readers of this blog than any of the other thirty-something I posted in 2011. Following are the articles, their intros and my thoughts about why they might have been so popular. Also, my thoughts on why the least read article of the year was so…unread. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments section. The Squeaky Wheel Blog’s Most Read Articles of 2011:

1. The Heavy Metal Price of Bad Customer Service

A few days ago I received an email from Mike, a Cisco customer who had a complaint about the company. His story started innocently enough—he purchased a router that did not work properly out of the box and called Cisco’s technical support hotline to complain. What followed was an unfortunate illustration of why having bad customer service procedures and neglecting the importance of open communication with customers can cost a company’s bottom line.

My Thoughts: This case study was mentioned in at least one high-level Cisco conference as well as a marketing Key Note Address. Mike (whom I’ve never met) wrote a great song, thousands of Youtube views and even a good response (eventually) from Cisco. It’s a happy story all around.

2. Learning Customer Service from the Visually Impaired

“You are about to enter a different kind of darkness—a darkness so pitch black, you will not be able to see a thing. Place your hands on the shoulders of the person in front of you. We will walk slowly. Ready? Now, follow me, I will show you to your table.” So began one of the most interesting and memorable dining experiences I’ve ever had.

My Thoughts: I’m in the dark about why this post did so well (Thank you, I’ll be here all week!). If I had to guess it was because the idea of dining in total darkness has very broad appeal.

3. My Letter to Tony Hsieh

I’ve heard numerous stories about CEOs who are reputed to read every email they receive and have generally taken such claims with a grain of salt (if not many, many grains). But a recent experience with Zappos customer service left a sufficient impression on me that I felt moved to chuck all skepticism aside and write a personal email to Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO and author of Delivering Happiness. Here is the letter I wrote.

My Thoughts: Who knew that my efforts to get the CEO of Zappos to read my book would turn out to be so popular? Although to be honest, its popularity was probably due to the popularity of Tony Hsieh.

4. Does Your Company Know How to Apologize Correctly?

Most customer service representatives are trained to voice apologies when handling complaint calls but they are rarely trained to do so correctly.

My Thoughts: This post did so well it was even adopted as a White Paper by the good folks at Stella Service (.com). It still amazes me that companies regularly botch something as basic as an apology, but yet those that don’t are still exceedingly rare.

5. The Psychology of Customer Loyalty

Loyal customers are those who feel a strongly held commitment to re-buy or re-patronize a specific product, service or company. They are considered a company’s biggest asset as besides providing repeat business, loyal customers spread positive word of mouth that can be up to twenty times more powerful than regular advertising.

My Thoughts: Here again, it’s shocking how often C level management in large companies ignore basic information about customer loyalty, especially as it pertains to complaint handling.

Least Read Article of 2011:

My Session in the Recording Studio

Last weekend I spent 14 hours in a recording studio taping the audio-book for The Squeaky Wheel. It was my first visit to a recording studio of any kind and as might be expected I was nervous. “You’ll be recording in that booth,” the director said, pointing toward a glass window through which I could make out a broom-closet sized room with a small desk, chair and a microphone. “Won’t the back-up singers feel cramped in there?” I asked jokingly. The director didn’t respond. I turned and saw she already had her earphones on and was busy flipping switches. I decided to ditch my ‘Let’s take it once more from the chorus!” joke I was saving for later.

My Thoughts: Okay, I thought my description of recording the audio version of The Squeaky Wheel was both funny and charming. Readers apparently did not. Most people hope to learn something new when they read a blog and yes, it’s possible my struggle not to burp after taking a lunch break was not sufficiently informative.

Please visit again as there are many more articles to come in 2012!

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Customer Service Hitting All-Time Lows as Holiday Shopping Begins

A recent survey in the UK found that consumers were more dissatisfied with customer service than ever before. Findings indicated that 75% of consumers felt customer service standards were at an all-time low and 62% expressed feeling no loyalty to retailers or service providers because they felt under-valued as customers. Rising Anger and Frustration

Customers expressed both anger and frustration about the state of customer service. Over 65% believe retailers, leisure providers and service providers are arrogant and that they make no effort to understand their customers. Over 50% of UK consumers surveyed thought businesses should actually be fined for consistent poor service (i.e., they feel customer attrition alone is insufficient).

Complaint Management and Mismanagement

When it comes to voicing complaints, 80% of customers stated they would like immediate reassurance from companies as well as evidence their complaints will be taken seriously and resolved to their satisfaction. Indeed, over half those surveyed stated they voiced complaints for the first time, implying their patience with bad customer service practices has worn thin.

Here in the USA Customer Service in the third quarter actually showed a slight decline from last year, not a promising sign as the holiday shopping season is now in full bloom.

Customers and Companies Must Both Change

As I’ve written before (Complaint Handling: Where Customers and Companies Both Fail), customers and companies must both take responsibility for the deficient state of customer service. Companies must pay more attention to customer’s complaints and dissatisfactions and learn how to handle them with excellence as doing do increases customer loyalty (read how here). On the other hand, consumers must learn how to complain effectively and make efforts to address their concerns to the companies directly, rather than just telling their friends about how annoyed they are and defecting to the competition without giving the company a chance to make things right.

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Which Emotion Most Drives Customer Hostility?

Two customers with the same exact complaint contact customer service representatives to voice their dissatisfactions. One of them expresses their problem calmly and with civility while the other, with the exact same complaint, explodes in hostility and aggression. This rather common situation raises 3 questions: 1. What is it that accounts for the huge difference in the two customers’ complaining behavior?

2. How should customer service representatives respond differently to each of these customers?

3. Can management mitigate the impact of hostile customers on frontline employees?

A new study in the Journal of Service Management examined the different emotions we bring to complaining situations such as rage, regret, and anxiety. They found that one emotion was more prominent in fueling customer hostility than all others—frustration.

Customers who experienced high frustration tended to bring a significant amount of hostility and aggression to their interactions with customer service representatives, making them extremely emotionally challenging for the frontline representatives laboring to assist them.

In my book The Squeaky Wheel, I discuss the various ways in which how dealing with hostile customers negatively impacts the productivity and mental health of customer service and call center employees. I also discuss and give examples of the steps companies can take to mitigate these effects, as well as the managerial models that have been proven effective in doing so. Therefore, understanding that frustration is often the main driver of customer hostility means that customer service practices need to be adapted to consider the following guidelines for dealing with hostile complaints:

1. The only way to attain a satisfactory service recovery in such situations is to first manage (and reduce) the customer’s hostility—otherwise the hostile complaining behavior will persist or even increase (see my article: The Antidote to Anger and Frustration).

2. Customer service representatives must therefore postpone entering into a discussion about potential remedies and solutions to the problem and allow the customer to fully explain their frustration and the situation creating it.

3. Representatives must then offer customers both an apology (see my article: Does Your Company Know How to Apologize Effectively?) and display empathy (see my article: How to test Your Empathy).

4. Customers who feel their emotions were understood and validated will immediately feel less frustrated and be more open to service recovery efforts (watch short video: How to Apologize to Customers).

5. Frontline employees must manage significant amounts of stress when performing service recoveries in this way. To continue functioning at the highest levels they will need their own support and empathy from their managers and supervisors.

CONCLUSION: In order to perform effective service recoveries and sustain a productive staff, both frontline employees and their supervisors/managers must be trained to express support and empathy in and after encounters with highly emotional and hostile customers.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

References: Tronvoll, B. (2011). Negative Emotions and Their Effect on Customer Complaint Behaviour. Journal of Service Management, 22(1), 111‐134

The True Meaning of Customer Service Week

Customer Service Week arrives every first week in October with about as much media attention and fanfare as Physician’s Assistant Day on October 6 (remember to smile when you hand them your sample) and Leif Erikson Day on October 9 (don’t forget to order your Dragon Boat cake). Yet, I would argue that customer service week is far more important than Leif Erikson Day, and not just because Leif Eriskon is dead. Theoretically, customer service week is an opportunity for companies to show appreciation to their customer service employees as much as it is to show appreciation for their actual customers. Indeed, in most cases, it is the employees who need the appreciation more, much, much more. In my book The Squeaky Wheel, I devote an entire chapter to the stresses suffered by customer-service and call-center employees as well as what companies could do to mitigate such stresses. In addition, in a recent article in Psychology Today (The Last Bullying Frontier) I wrote about how many members of the public bully call-center employees and the impact their hostility has on the physical and especially the mental health of call-center workers.

As a response to the article I received many emails and comments from call-center employees (none from companies or call-center managers). To bring home the importance of Customer Service Week as an opportunity for companies to support, encourage, and recognize the efforts of their customer service employees, especially those who work in call-centers, here are quotes from five call-center employees who commented on the article, the stresses of their jobs and the impact those stresses have on their lives and happiness:

Quotes from Call-Center Employees about Job Stress

1. “I get callers that forget I'm a human and not the mere personification of their frustrations. I can understand their frustration, but I am not paid to be their punching bag… I sometimes see fellow employees in tears.”

2. “I've worked at two centers and I've left both after hitting breaking point with the abuse suffered. The first time I quit I took a month off before I was ready to try it again, this time in a significantly different field. The second time I quit saw a few months of daily binge drinking, serious depression, failed therapy sessions and finally starting to settle down after getting onto antidepressants… I honestly can't recommend this kind of work to any sane person.”

3. “There is an attitude among many Americans that anyone who dares to approach them for a sale deserves abuse.”

4. “Call center survivor here...Over the course of six years in tech support, I developed an aversion to phones. Every time the phone rings I get a knot of anxiety in my gut... an implicit sense of fear and dread. I've talked to others who experience the same issue, and many of us can no longer comfortably talk on the phone in our personal lives…And based on the number of people I've talked to who experience it, I can't help but think it's massively common in the industry.”

5. “Thank you for this article! My husband currently works for a major cell phone service provider in their tech support division and puts up with the most insane human behavior. We met while we both worked at a different call center, so I too know the abuses people are capable of and the toll it takes on the receiver… I hate seeing what it does to him, but we just cannot afford it [him leaving], especially in this economy. I just want to say to others, please, these representatives on the other end of the line are someone else’s loved ones. They have lives and families, just like you and no more deserve your anger and wrath any more than you would. They do not dictate company policy. They are just as much a slave to it as you are.”

Hopefully, both companies and customers can take heed and use Customer Service Week to raise awareness for the need to treat Customer Service Representatives with respect, civility, and appreciation for doing a job that is among the most stressful of all occupations.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

10 Most Annoying Customer Service Practices

Researching and writing The Squeaky Wheel involved calling more companies than I can remember, experiencing their customer service practices and marveling at how needlessly annoying many of them were. Consequently I developed the following list of pet peeves* (some of which I elaborate upon further in the book) which here I phrased as questions to the companies themselves. Perhaps one day, these questions will be answered—but let’s just say, I’m not placing my breath on hold. Dear Customer Service Corporate Executives:

1.  Why is there no ‘back’ option for automated menus so we can correct mistakes without having to start over? Don’t you realize some of us have fat fingers?

2.  Why does every company think the only song that can sooth my frazzled nerves when I’m on hold is Dolly Parton and Kenny Roger’s Islands in the Stream? If I hear that song one more time we will definitely not “Ride it together, uh-huh!”

3.  Why does your automated message caution us to “Listen carefully because our menu options have changed”? Who are you warning exactly? How many customers do you think memorized your entire menu tree and need to be alerted you changed it?

4.  Why does the automated voice that announces “Your wait time will be two minutes” sound just as upbeat and cheerful as when it announces “Your wait time will be fifty-two minutes”? Would it kill you to tape a version that sounded slightly more apologetic?

5.  Why are American companies using posh English accents on their automated menus? Do you really think your business will come across as ‘high-end’ if the person giving me menu choices sounds like Judy Dench even though the live person I reach sounds like Judy Tenuta?

6.  Why do your automated menus tell me to enter my account number for faster service if the first thing your representative does when I finally get through is ask me for my account number?

7.  Why does your on-hold message insist that you know my time is valuable at the very moment you’re wasting it? Don’t you see how that could be perceived as passive aggressive?

8.  Why does my toaster oven have a serial number that’s more complicated than the code for the nations Nukes? Surely there’s a simpler way for me to describe my product than reading a string of characters and symbols that look like they could open a Stargate.

9.  Why is it so hard for you to distinguish between first and last names? Am I supposed to feel confident about your ability to handle my problem when the first thing I hear is, “Yes, Mr. Guy. Can I call you Winch?”

10. Why do you instruct your representatives to end a call saying, “I hope I’ve been able to answer all your questions” even if they haven’t answered any of them? Don’t you realize you’re just making it awkward for both of us?

*Further inspiration provided by Kate Nasser, Greg Levin and Write the Company.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

What I Learned about Corporate Culture by Speaking at Google

When I was invited to give a talk about my book The Squeaky Wheel for their Authors@Google YouTube channel in their New York City offices I was thrilled. But then I visited the Google offices and my excitement turned to worry. Could a talk titled How Our Complaining Psychology Impacts Our Lives and Relationships garner any interest at a company whose offices featured game rooms (in case you feel like playing pool or ping pong), sleeping pods (in case you feel like napping), massage rooms (in case you pulled a muscle during a rigorous ping pong game or napped in weird position), not to mention gourmet free lunches and food stations at every corner? I mean, what would Google employees have to complain about? Further, my talk was scheduled for noon which meant I’d be in direct competition with the free lavish gourmet lunch being served upstairs. Personally, if I had to choose between sushi on an outside terrace with a stunning New York City view and a talk about complaining psychology, I’d reach for the chopsticks in a flash (I hear ping pong works up quite an appetite).

After seeing that the auditorium seated over 100 people I became even more concerned because nothing makes for sadder YouTube viewing than watching a presenter speak to an empty room.

The First Lesson I Learned at Google

The first thing I learned at Google was that when a company has a corporate culture that fosters autonomy, creativity and personal responsibility among its employees, these qualities will come through in everything they do. For example, as I expected, flyers announcing my talk were posted all around the huge office floors (the space is so large they have scooter stations to help folks get around). However, I did expect the flyers to be accompanied by an additional more ‘subliminal’ marketing campaign.

For example, as I passed by meeting rooms I saw a sign posted that said, HAVING TROUBLE FINDING A FREE MEETING ROOM? Apparently, it can be tricky finding a free room for meetings at Google NYC. In small print at the bottom of the sign was an invitation to attend my talk and learn about complaining psychology.

In one of food stations I saw a deep tray stacked with melting ice cubes. Apparently, the ice cubes are brought in every morning but they tend to melt before the day is over making it hard to find ice cubes in the afternoon. A posted sign said WISH WE HAD AN ICE MACHINE? Again info about my talk was in small print below. There were similar signs throughout the vast space in all of the ‘problem’ areas.

I thought the idea (implemented by my host at Google Tomer Sharon) was both hilarious and brilliant. Of course, it’s impossible to know whether the ‘subliminal’ campaign had an impact on attendance or not but suffice to say, the auditorium was full by the time my talk began.

The Second Lesson I Learned at Google

The second thing I learned at Google was that when a corporate culture fosters autonomy, people are free to express themselves and ask all manner of questions without feeling judged. I decided to leave 15 minutes for a Q & A at the end of my talk but was worried there would be no questions (another potentially sad YouTube moment is when “Are there any questions?” is followed by the sound of chirping crickets).

My host reassured me that at Google talks, people always have questions. Questions are great things in companies. Employees that feel free to ask and to question are also free to challenge, to brainstorm and to problem solve.

Indeed, the Google folks had many questions for me, ranging from dealing with New York City taxi cab complaints to complaints about colleagues, and even a complain about how to complain about another person’s complaint. We even went slightly overtime and had to cut some questions short.

The Third Lesson I Learned at Google

In a previous post (Toes, Toes Everywhere) I discussed my uncanny ability to offend people inadvertently when giving talks. The third thing I learned at Google (albeit not about corporate culture) was that my toe-stepping streak remains intact.

During the talk I made a hilarious quip about how annoying it is that customer service representatives always have foreign accents (hilarious, I thought, because I too have an accent). It got no laughs whatsoever. I wasn’t sure why until the Q & A began. After having to ask the first questioner to repeat their query three times because I couldn’t understand their accent, the penny dropped and I had my answer.

I had a great time at Google! After the talk I went back to my own office, looked around and felt somewhat empty and bereft. I have a very nice corner office in midtown Manhattan with a great view of the Flatiron building from one window and of Queens from the other.

But inside, there’s not a ping pong table or sushi roll in sight…

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

My Year as a Chronic Complainer

When writing The Squeaky Wheel I wanted to use every opportunity to test out the tools and techniques I suggest in the book. As a result, I spent a year complaining about things I would have ordinarily shrugged off, becoming in essence a temporary chronic complainer. Chronic complainers often see their world as being very negative and themselves as responding reasonably to the slings and arrows that befall them. When they complain they feel the same irritation and dismay others do but they also feel a dollop of emotional satisfaction. In other words, their complaints provide validation for their self-perceptions as ‘sad-sacks’ (for a more detailed discussion of the psychology of chronic complainers read Chapter 4 in The Squeaky Wheel or this article in Psychology Today).

In my case, my prodigious complaining output was not just a way of assessing the effectiveness of various complaining techniques but it also provided a window into the psychological impact expressing an abundance of complaints could have on one’s mood (in this case, mine). That said, what separated my complaints from those of chronic complainers was that I intended my complaints to be effective and get results, whereas chronic complainers rarely voice complaints with the goal of resolving matters.

I’ve already documented my experiences complaining about such trifles as the ‘Burrito Incident’ and my fake complaint to Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. Over the year of writing the book, I ended up voicing hundreds of complaints about practically everything—yes I was a ‘joy’ to be around.

My most prolific day of complaining was also the most informative—at least psychologically. I arrived home after having written a complaint letter to the management of my office building, having sent a complaint sandwich email to a friend about a scheduling issue and having spoken to the manager of a local grocery store about their failure to remove expired-dairy-products from their shelves. I felt like a complaining machine!

I started going through monthly bills when I realized I had hit the trifecta! There were small problems with bills from three different companies (Verizon, Time Warner Cable and Con-Edison) which meant placing calls to three different customer service hotlines! Surely six complaints in one day should earn me at least honorary status as a chronic-complainer.

I was curious to see how my ability to regulate my emotions (so I could complain effectively) would hold up throughout the customer service calls. It would be a true test of my effective complaining skills and of the strategies I advocate in the book.

Fifteen minutes into my first call my ‘curiosity’ was totally gone and I began to feel terribly impatient. By the second call, I started feeling annoyed by the sound of my own voice when spelling my name for the customer service rep on the other end of the line. Shortly after that I detected a whine creeping in. By the third call (Con Edison) I felt like an over-tied four-year-old, as evidenced by my whiny plea to the rep, “But why do they have to read the meter again? Why?” It wasn’t a proud moment.

What I found illuminating (albeit only in hindsight) was the realization that while chronic complainers might feel emotional validation from encountering and expressing their woes, for non-chronic complainers, too much complaining, even effective complaining can present diminishing returns.

Though I tried to remind myself that my complaints were both minor and manageable, voicing so many of them in one day made it very hard for me to keep things in the proper emotional perspective. I gave myself a few days off from complaining and found it incredibly emotionally refreshing to do so.

The bottom line is that even for effective complainers, complaints should have dosing guidelines. If you’re complaining too much and you begin to sound whiny or to feel annoyed at the sound of your own voice, it’s probably a good idea to take a break from complaining for a few days and refocus on being positive and optimistic.

The chronic complaining slope is a slippery one indeed.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

New Survey: Bad Customer Service Impairs Our Quality of Life

A new poll found that citizens of the United Kingdom spend three-and-a-half years of their lives being angry. The average Brit reported spending one hour and nineteen minutes a day in a foul mood and the number one cause cited for their ill-tempers was—bad customer service! Two thousand subjects completed the survey in which they estimated how often they find themselves in a bad mood and what they thought was the cause of their anger. Not only was bad customer service the prime suspect for Brit’s dark clouds (rather surprisingly, actual dark clouds were not mentioned as a cause of bad mood) the runner up culprit was also customer service related—automated phone systems.

Although work problems, money worries and family issues were also mentioned in the survey, they failed to make the top ten. Apparently, such troubles pale in comparison with the fury Brits feel toward top ten societal horrors such as Dog Mess and Public Displays of Affection.

But do annoyances such as poor customer service and automated menus impact our quality of life for the worse in the USA as much as they do in the UK? Or do the British findings constitute…much a-poo about nothing?

In Chapter 7 of The Squeaky Wheel I describe how Samuel, a senior financial executive, spent an entire therapy session describing the ‘preparations’ he went through to place a simple call to his bank to dispute interest fees. In addition to the therapy hour, Samuel spent numerous hours dreading the call, a good hour preparing for it (dressing in his best suit, warming up his voice, stretching, cracking his knuckles and making sure his wife and kids were out of earshot) and over an hour on the call itself.

If we actually added up how much time in a given week we spend irritated about poor customer service in stores or restaurants or how much angst we generate about calling hotlines and dealing with endless automated menus, we would be stunned by the results.

Bad customer service is a daily fact of modern life. We interact with service providers and customer service professionals every day and in almost everything we do. To assume poor customer service can have the cumulative effect of negatively impacting years or even months of our lives seems entirely plausible.

But if so, what are we to do?

Should we simply accept that significant chunks of our existence are to be dominated by minor annoyances and irritations? Should we sit by and passively wait for the day when corporations, companies, businesses and government rid us of such irritations by drastically improving their customer service practices?

What we can and should do, is take action. As consumers and citizens, we can take it upon ourselves to learn how to complain effectively; to make wise choices about which complaints to pursue and which to let slide, to acquire the skills and tools that will get us results and turn our complaints into agents of change. Since decision makers in companies are exposed to similar customer service frustrations in their lives (they too encounter bad service in restaurants or rude sales associates in stores), they should work from within their companies to prioritize customer service excellence and a customer-centric corporate culture.

Please forgive me the following shameful plug, but if spending a few hours reading The Squeaky Wheel can save us days, weeks and maybe even months of anger and ill-temper over our life-spans, surely it is an investment worth making (end of shameful plug).

With all the anger-free time you’ll be adding to your life you might feel giddy enough to put on a public display of affection of your own. Just remember to watch your step.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

The Squeaky Wheel: Reader Success Stories

Some readers of The Squeaky Wheel have been kind enough to send me emails about successes they’ve had using the techniques I suggest in the book. I asked a couple of those whose successes were in the financial realm to share their stories which they graciously agreed to do. Names of readers and companies have been changed at the readers’ request—all other details are accurate. Admittedly, I did choose the most impressive ones but unlike diet ads where the tiny print under the before and after pictures says “Weight loss results pictured are not typical” I’m saying in regular print and before we even get to the stories, the results below are not typical but clearly, they are possible.

Squeaking a Mortgage Company into Submission

Mathew wrote to his mortgage company during a difficult time in his life—he and his second wife had decided to separate. As part of an amicable separation agreement, Mathew needed to remove his wife’s name from the mortgage and refinance his home. The mortgage company told him he would have to be closing fees, refinancing fees and $3,000 in fees for paying his own taxes on the property (mortgage companies are very good at finding things for which to charge fees). Mathew’s mortgage broker said she was unable to waive or reduce any of these fees.

Mathew decided to complain to the mortgage company and use the techniques I suggest in The Squeaky Wheel to do so. He looked up the names and email addresses of senior executives in the mortgage company and wrote them a simple email using the Complaint Sandwich technique.

He started with a positive statement that comprises first slice of bread—and wrote about his long history with the company and that he has been a loyal and valuable customer. He mentioned his separation and the need to remove his wife’s name from the mortgage and refinance—and then he presented the meat of the sandwich—his complaint about the fees the company was charging.

Mathew ended his letter with a second positive statement—the second slice of bread. Mathew knew The Squeaky Wheel suggested that when the resolution of our complaint requires someone to take exceptional action on our behalf, we must make it as easy as possible for the complaint-recipient to do so. In addition, the second slice of bread in the complaint sandwich should be especially thick in such situations. Mathew ended his letter like this:

“I would greatly appreciate your help in this situation—by waiving the fees associated with me paying my own taxes—please. Again I greatly appreciate your time in this matter and hope you can support your valued customers like myself, as I have supported [The Company]. I have cc’d [name of mortgage broker] who is the most fantastic mortgage broker that [The Company] has!

All you would have to do is reply and cc all with the ability to waive fees relating to me paying my own taxes.”

Mathew got a reply from one of the executives within a couple of days. A few short sentences lead up to the following statement, “You win.”

The mortgage company simply could not refuse a long standing customer whose complaint was presented in a manner that was so respectful, civil, kind and compelling. Having been wrestled to the ground by Mathew’s masterful complaint, the mortgage company submitted and tapped-out.

Mathew saved $3,000 as a result and wrote to me that very day.

An Ironman Triathlete’s Marathon Complaint to his Medical Insurance Provider

The following is taken from an Amazon review posted by a reader—the Kentucky Kid—the full text is available on Amazon.com here: Let’s begin with the Kid’s own words:

“Here's what happened to me after I had read this book: I do Ironman triathlons and marathons. Last year while training, I found out that I had a stress fracture on my pelvic bone. Ouch. I needed an MRI to verify that it was indeed a stress fracture. The first MRI came out blurry and I needed to take a second. After assuring me that I would not be charged for another MRI, I took the second test and was told that, yes, I had a pelvic stress fracture. Skip ahead a few months when the bill arrives. I was charged for 2 MRIs $1200 each!!”

The Kentucky Kid’s deductible meant he should have had to pay only $800 for the first MRI. He called to complain and was told there was nothing that could be done. Being no stranger to marathons (the Ironman involves running a full marathon only after completing the swim and bike legs, making it a 12-13 hour race!), the Kid persisted until he got the company to waive the charge for the second MRI.  However, that still left him paying for the first MRI in full.

Before I had read this book, I probably would have left it at just paying the $1200 for the original MRI and felt good about not having to pay for the 2nd MRI. Crazy, right?”

The Kid found himself getting irate “…smoke coming from my ears!” and decided to employ the emotional regulation techniques in the book to calm himself. “I explained to her, very calmly, that I would not be hanging up the phone until this matter is resolved. Silence. I explained to her that the letter from my insurance company told me that after their deductions I would owe the lab $800 and I am more than happy to pay that amount as I did receive a service from them and would absolutely be paying $800 and not one penny more. Silence. She told me to hang on while she spoke to her manager. I thanked her and when she put me on hold I began to feel very zen-like and clear-minded! Normally, I would be yelling and screaming and demanding my rights. Funny, huh?!”

The Kentucky Kid’s emotional; management, patience and efforts paid off. Instead of having to pay $2,400 for two MRI’s he would pay only an $800 deductible—something he was glad to do.

Success Letters from Readers

I’ve also received emails from readers whose successes improved not their finances but their relationships and self-esteem—and those of course, are priceless.

I’m very grateful to readers who email me with success stories as it is immensely gratifying to know people are benefitting from the book. Please keep those coming—I find real joy in hearing about any successes readers have, regardless of scale.

For those who have written to me—you have my deepest thanks!

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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The Heavy (Metal) Price of Bad Customer Service

A few days ago I received an email from Mike, a Cisco customer who had a complaint about the company. His story started innocently enough—he purchased a router that did not work properly out of the box and called Cisco’s technical support hotline to complain. What followed was an unfortunate illustration of why having bad customer service procedures and neglecting the importance of open communication with customers can cost a company’s bottom line. The Steps Mike Took to Complain Effectively:

1. He contacted the company numerous times. Mike gave Cisco numerous opportunities to resolve his problem but the company was unable to get his router to work.

2. He was clear about what he wanted when complaining. After several calls, when it became apparent Mike was given wrong information and he would need a different model router, “I simply requested a free upgrade to a better model—the difference in price was 50 bucks.”

3. He persisted in pursuing his complaint. Cisco agreed to send Mike the upgraded model but instead sent him the very same (cheaper) model that hadn’t worked—twice!

4. He escalated his complaint to management. After failing to resolve his complaint, Mike asked for the contact information for company management—which customer service refused to give him. Mike looked up the information himself and wrote an email to company management.

The Mistakes Cisco Made in Complaint Management:

1. They failed to take responsibility. Mike spoke to three technicians before one of them admitted the problem he was having was one that was known to the company.

2. They failed to resolve the matter in a timely manner. After a full month of emails and phone calls, Mike is still without a functioning router.

3. They employed planned inconvenience. Mike was told his request for an upgrade had to be “forwarded on” after which he received an email telling him his request was denied.

4. They restricted communication with the customer. Cisco actually made it difficult for Mike to communicate with them, “Through the entire 4 week process…I was never able to speak with a decision maker—that I think was the key problem.”

5. They broke promises and lacked follow through. Cisco promised solutions and then failed to deliver them (by twice sending the same model router instead of an upgrade). Lack of follow through damages customer loyalty and makes the company appear even less trustworthy.

6. They were uninformed about problems with their own products. “I saw a post (on Cisco's own forum boards no less) about the issue. The person posting it had the exact same experience as me and they also mentioned a technician finally admitting it too.”

The Consequences of Cisco’s Poor Customer Service Efforts

After a month of emails and calls and still without a functioning router, Mike found himself incredibly frustrated. “I'm MOST pissed off at Upper Management and whoever designed their philosophy of service. Some companies have EXCELLENT policies about customer service and returns (sometimes it's even, no questions asked, just refund or exchange quickly) and clearly Cisco's policy is to avoid refunds at all costs and if there is an exchange, to make sure you've totally exhausted your customer before they get it.”

Mike decided to channel his frustration into composing a song about his experience and titled his ditty “Cisco Sucks”. Mike posted a video of the song and an accompanying slideshow on youtube where it got over 500 views. Then he upped the ante by filming a real music video. “I took my camera and filmed myself singing and dancing around and got my kids to help.”

“I'm REALLY hoping that somehow my video will get tons of views. I'm thinking that once I get over 1,000 (if I do) then I'll send the link to that guy who wrote me along with a few other people at Cisco. I'm also trying to post my video on forums, websites and blogs to increase the views.”

The Moral of Customer Service Stories like Mike’s.

Mike is the kind of person who understands customer service and its function and therefore had Cisco handled Mike’s complaint correctly he would have been likely to spread good word of mouth about his experience with them. Albeit, he would probably not been sufficiently moved to compose a “Cisco Rocks” song and put it on youtube. Readers of The Squeaky Wheel have been speaking up and writing to me about their successes (albeit Mike did so independently), which means companies with poor customer service might need to brace themselves for more music videos of the "You Suck" genre.

The difference to a company’s bottom line between one customer spreading positive word of mouth to numerous people and that same customer spreading terrible word of mouth to hundreds of people via youtube—is no doubt substantial.

When companies quantify the return on investment of improving customer service and complaint handling practices, they should strongly consider the damage frustrated customers cause to their reputation as well as the potential benefits satisfied ones can provide. If that doesn’t make them revamp their customer service, they too will finding themselves facing the music—this music:

Cisco Sucks! by Mike Soltis on YouTube

UPDATE (May 2, 2011): Last week, upon reaching 1,000 views on YouTube Mike wrote emails to numerous Cisco executives and finally got a response. In fact, he got many. A Senior Manager in Operations called him at home to apologize for his troubles and will be sending him their top of the line router.  He also conveyed that the company planned to make changes because of Mike's case. In addition, Mike got calls from numerous other executives including a VP of Marketing.

Stay tuned for more updates (and more videos?) from Mike. And my hat is off to Cisco, whose executives (if not call-center employees) clearly do know how to go about doing service recoveries the right way! Let's hope they implement the changes necessary to avoid/minimize such situations in the future.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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Customer Blacklists: Throwing Out the Granny with the Bathwater?

Most companies and call-centers have blacklists—names and phone-numbers of people who complain with such frequency, they are considered a liability. Some call customer service hotlines tens and even hundreds of times a month, over-burdening the company’s resources and leading them to create special mechanisms for handling such callers. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) technologies usually trigger an alert once a given customer exceeds a company’s specified call threshold. This prompts the company to take any one of a variety of measures in which, the customer is placed on some kind of blacklist, either with or without their knowledge.

Some companies assign these high-maintenance customers to designated call-center teams who are specially trained to handle them. Other companies might discuss the issue with the customer and inform them they are allowed to call only a certain number of times per day or week. Once the customer uses up their allotment, their calls are refused until a new counting period begins.

In other situations, customers might be downgraded without their knowledge. For example, their calls might be routed so their hold times increase, making it more laborious for them to get through to a representative to discourage them from calling with the same frequency.

A few companies have even tried breaking up with complaint-happy customers by sending them corporate versions of ‘Dear John’ letters. In 2007, Sprint made the incredibly bonehead decision to terminate their relationship with over 1,000 subscribers who Sprint claimed, were calling the company too often (apparently, anything over 40 calls a month was a relationship killer).

Needless to say, Sprint’s initiative led to a public relations nightmare for the company. Message boards went wild at the time, with cell-phone subscribers of various companies happily posting, “Now I know how to get out of my cell-phone contract—harass customer service!” which was not the takeaway Sprint was hoping for. Indeed, public breakups are always messy.

People who contact call-centers dozens of calls a month can belong to the chronically malcontent or the vindictive but they are just as likely to be elderly, infirmed, lonely, cognitively impaired (like the character in the film Memento except with fewer tattoos) or all of the above. Some of these people are chronic complainers but others are just looking for someone to talk to.

Some habitual callers are elderly customers who are trying to recreate the kinds of personal relationships they enjoyed with local banks or businesses during their earlier years, when they visited several times a week to withdraw funds or deposit checks. That the person at the other end of the line might be located in an entirely state or country doesn’t occur to them.

They used to know all their local tellers, sales associates or business owners by name and they long for a similar kind of personal relationship with their current service providers and vendors. They refer to the call-center representatives as ‘sonny’ or ‘dear’ and once they are informed their calls are considered a nuisance, they usually reduce their frequency drastically.

However, few companies’ CRM technologies can distinguish between a well-intentioned and nostalgic geriatric and a chronically-displeased and relentless complainer. Certainly it would be impossible to do so without discussing the matter with the customer in question.

To avoid marginalizing customers who actually seek a closer relationship with the company, customers should only be placed on blacklists once efforts have been made to discuss and clarify these issues with them. Having them speak with service representatives trained to handle such calls with sensitivity is the only way companies can be sure they don’t make a mistake.

After all, we wouldn’t want to throw out the granny with the bathwater.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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Customer Service that's Bad Enough to Sing About

All over the world, people gather in town squares and concert halls and sing their complaints to orchestral arrangements. The complaints cover all aspects of life but many of them are gripes about customer service, contact centers and local municipalities. Glee Club it’s not. The Philadelphia Complaints Choir sings their displeasure with contact centers by mocking their automated messages. “Due to unusually high call volume, our operators are busy assisting other customers! Your call will be answered in the order it was received! Your call is very important to us!” These refrains repeat several times throughout their performance. Their customer service tirade might have carried far more pathos if it weren’t sandwiched between laments such as, “New Jersey drivers can’t drive or park” and “I have gas!”

However amusing their efforts, these choirs fall into the same mindset of helplessness and hopelessness that pervades all aspects of our complaining psychology. Their complaints are remarkably ineffective and their performances do little to create change or address specific companies.

Other choirs around the world focus their complaints on municipality services with equal vigor as they do corporations. If nothing else, they do provide interesting travelogues about world cities. For example, listening to the Helsinki choir would alert us that “the tram smells of pee.” However, judging by the refrain, the Helsinki choir members’ most pressing concern is, “I don’t get laid enough”. Perhaps they shouldn’t take the tram to dates.

Continuing the municipalities services oeuvre, the Chicago choir is upset that, “Buses bunch up worse than granny panties.” An important piece of tourist information, albeit one conveyed with a visual most of us could have done without.

What I find so unfortunate about complaints choirs is they invest huge amounts of time and energy into complaining yet do so in a manner that guarantees none of their problems will be resolved. And yet, they could easily sing their dissatisfactions in ways that made their complaints effective. For example, if the Helsinki choir stood in front of their city hall and sang to their town government, “You’d better make sure trams don’t smell of pee, or you won’t get reelected, just wait and see!” their trams might actually get cleaned.

Indeed, singing their complaints to the actual companies, business or municipalities that can actually do something about them does not cross these choirs’ minds. Yet, despite their utter complaining inefficiency, complaints choirs continue to sprout up in cities, towns and universities all over the world. If this trend continues, the next frontier for customer service might just be the concert hall.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch