The Squeaky Wheel and the Real Estate (Ka)Boom

My book, The Squeaky Wheel, opens with a story about New York City real-estate. In the midst of last decade’s real-estate boom an apartment building was built on a vacant lot 20 feet from my building, causing months of terrible noise as large machines bored into the bedrock (known as Manhattan Schist). Everyone in my building complained about the noise but our landlord was not responsible and he turned down all their complaints. I also wrote a complaint letter and to my surprise, it was so effective that he agreed to lower my rent as a result. In the chapter, I discuss what (psychologically) made my neighbor’s efforts ineffective and I explain the practical and psychological ingredients that made my own efforts successful. A writer for the New York Times mentioned this story in an article she wrote last week about complaining to mortgage lenders. This week, The Herald Tribune picked up the story and decided to lead with a picture ‘depicting’ me writing my letter to the landlord. Here it is:

The image they used is hilarious for several reasons. First, I live in downtown Manhattan and not the mountains of Afghanistan. Second, if bombs were going off 20 feet away from our building, surely the other tenants in my building would have made a better case for having their rent reduced as well.

Lastly, I used this story in my book because it illustrated the psychological principles of complaining effectively as well as the negative and defeatist psychological mindsets we often fall prey to when we have a nagging complaint. Blasts going off right outside our homes would no doubt cause an entirely different set of psychological mindsets (not to mention panic, trauma and PTSD) as those who live in war zones can surely attest.

If you wish to read the full story, the first chapter of The Squeaky Wheel can be downloaded free on Kindle devices and it can also be read free online on Amazon’s website.

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

My Experience of Customer Service at the London Olympics

I recently wrote about the Psychological Impact of the Olympic Games and argued that coverage of the Games should emphasize the world uniting in athletic competition as opposed to emphasizing scandals and complaints (such as the media frenzy that erupted about Team USA's uniforms being manufactured in China). The Olympic Games are a unique and inspirational event and this report on the customer service offered to spectators is in no way intended to take away from their meaning and significance. Articles began appearing in the British press months ago questioning London's ability to provide an excellent customer experience at the venues. As a result, my expectations about their customer service were not exceedingly high. I braced myself for long lines at security points and for stressed and harried staff.

I'm happy to report, I braced for naught.

Customer Service in the Olympic Park

As soon as we emerged from the train we were greeted by smiling and friendly volunteers. Their upbeat and positive presence and cheerful willingness to answer any questions made it easy to get to the Olympic Park and find our way once we were inside the park itself. Getting past the security points took all of five minutes and here too the security staff and volunteers were helpful and friendly.

The signage  around London made it easy to get to all the venues. The signage within the park was well placed and included estimates of the number of minutes it would take to reach each venue from the current locale. The food offerings were varied and the eating facilities and bathrooms were clean and regularly maintained. The shops were mobbed but you wouldn't know it from the calm and patient attitude of the staff who remained pleasant and helpful despite the capacity crowds. Even the checkout was efficient and pleasant. In short, every single employee and staff member I saw (and I saw dozens) was friendly, cheerful, and excited.

Customer Service in the Olympic Stadium

Impressed as I was so far, I knew the real test of customer service would come at the end of the sessions (we attended two, a day and night session) when eighty thousand people left the stadium and tens of thousands more exited the other venues around the park. The London Olympic team passed this test too with flying colors. The stadium emptied very quickly and volunteers lined the long route to the train, waving, smiling, and even singing and dancing at times. Their energy and friendliness was remarkable and did not waver.

All in all, Great Britain earns a gold medal for their Olympic customer service and the customer experience they provided. They put on a terrific and efficient Olympics and provided great customer service combined with a terrific customer experience. Along with their successful and impressive medal haul, they have much to be proud of.

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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

Sh*t Customer Service Representatives Say

Since The Squeaky Wheel came out last year (now available in paperback!), I’ve gathered many examples of customer service or sales representatives handling simple questions, requests or complaints poorly. I chose the following two examples not because they were the most egregious (they were not) but because the people involved seemed truly clueless as to how inappropriate their responses really were. 1. Banana Republic:

Background: I purchased a coat at Banana Republic at full price the day before Thanksgiving and was assured by that if it went on sale on Black Friday (two days later) I would be credited the difference in price. But when I went back to the store (with my receipt) the sales person refused to credit me the difference (the coat was now $80 cheaper) for what she believed was a perfectly logical reason.

“We can only credit you the difference in price if the coat is on sale and it isn’t on sale, it’s on promotion.”

I resisted the urge to say, “Really? And what are you on?” mostly because I was afraid she might actually tell me (“Just a little Xanax, some Adderall, and Red Bull for lunch, why?”).

Result: I asked to speak to the manager instead. He immediately apologized, shot the sales person a nasty look and credited me with the difference.

2. Carmel Car and Limo:

Background: I called Carmel Limo Service to order a car to take me to the airport. The sales representative was extremely rude when taking my details. I asked why he was being unpleasant and he sighed loudly and snapped, “Just answer the question! Address!” I asked for his name and he cursed and hung up. I called Carmel’s customer service number to complain, mostly because I thought they would want to be informed of how their employee had behaved. The customer service manager heard me out, sighed in exasperation and responded with dismissive impatience:

“I understand you’re ‘claiming’ the person was rude but you don’t have their name, so there’s not much I can do about is there?” She quickly muttered, “Thank you for calling Carmel,” and hung up.

Clearly, the employee and customer service manager had similar training, (“No, no, no! You’re still being way too polite! Rudely! You have to say it more rudely!”). Carmel calls themselves the world's leading car service. I didn't know they were the ones leading the world--but it explaines a lot.

Result: Since the customer service manager was worse than the employee I took my business elsewhere and haven’t used them since.

Have any good examples of your own? Please add them in the comments section below.

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

New Study Reveals White Lies about Customer Dissatisfactions Cost Us Money

The squeaky wheel may get the grease but most of us make informed decisions about when to complain about minor customer service infractions and when to muffle our squeaks. A new study now indicates that when consumers tell white lies about customer service dissatisfactions, it often ends up costing them money. Researches Jennifer Argo and Baba Shiv wanted to examine what happens when we tell white lies to gloss over the minor dissatisfactions we encounter as consumers. Although it might seem as though no harm could come from telling a waiter our meal is fine when we don’t love it, or telling a hairdresser we like our new do when in fact we’re not thrilled with it, Argo and Shiv discovered that such is not the case.

One of the places they conducted their research was in restaurants where they surveyed both diners and servers. They found that 85% of diners admitted to telling white lies when their dining experiences were unsatisfactory (i.e., claiming all was well when it wasn’t). However the real interesting finding was that diners who told white lies to cover up their dissatisfactions were then likely to leave bigger tips than those who did not.

Why would diners who were less satisfied with their meals and who lied to their server about it leave an even bigger tip as a result? The researchers propose that cognitive dissonance was at play. Cognitive dissonance refers to situations in which our actions do not match our beliefs, creating a state of psychological and emotional discomfort. We tend to resolve cognitive dissonance by making efforts to align our actions with our beliefs by tinkering with one of them (either the action or the belief). Cognitive dissonance tends to operate unconsciously and not in a premeditated manner.

As to the current study, we all have an acceptable range of dishonesty. When our white lies fall outside that range it can trigger cognitive dissonance as we feel uncomfortable about our dishonesty. We might then try to reduce our cognitive dissonance by engaging in behaviors that actually favor the wrongdoer (as by doing so we ‘make up’ for our dishonesty). As a result, we not only tell the waiter our steak is delicious and then spit it out into our napkin as soon as their back is turned, we then tip them even more for our regurgitation.

Interestingly, 95% of the servers in the study indicated they knew when customers were lying about such things (i.e., saying the food was satisfactory when it wasn’t) and 100% of the servers (none of whom were trained psychologists) believed such lies translated into bigger tips.

In my book The Squeaky Wheel I discuss many instances and give numerous examples of the negative psychological, relationship and financial consequences we encounter by being ineffective complainers. Here is one more to add to that list—we pay more in tips when we fail to speak up about an unsatisfactory dining experience.

As readers of The Squeaky Wheel can attest, learning effective complaining skills benefits us as consumers (financially), benefits us psychologically and emotionally, and benefits our personal and workplace relationships. It also helps reduce our cognitive dissonance in situations of consumer dissatisfaction.

Of course, we could just keep spitting out our steaks into our napkins...

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Reference: Argo, J. & Shiv, B. Are White Lies as Innocuous as We Think? Journal of Consumer Research. April 2012 Vol. 38

Taco Bell and Complaints Gone Wild

This week a Taco Bell customer called to complain about not getting enough meat in his XL Chalupas. Taco Bell manager Cynthia Thompson apologized that the business was about to close for the night. The customer spat out racial expletives and threated to ‘redecorate the place’. He then drove back to the Taco Bell and proceeded to fire-bomb the drive-thru. No one was hurt. Last month Jeremy Combs, another Taco Bell customer, brandished a shotgun at a different Taco Bell drive-thru to protest the server neglecting to provide him with hot sauce.

In March of this year, a Texas Taco Bell Customer went on a violent rampage when discovering the price of Beefy Crunch Burritos had risen by fifty cents, firing an assualt rifle at the employees.

Last year three men were shot outside a Taco Bell in Chicago, although in this case the cause of the shooting was apparently unrelated to either Chalupas or hot sauce.

Senior editorial producer for SNY.tv Ted Berg reported seeing Taco Bell rage first hand when he was waiting at the drive through to collect his own meal. His account does provide some insight into the mindset of Taco Bell customers.

“Two cars in front of me, a black Jetta lingered at the pick-up window for what felt like an astonishingly long time — time of course being relative, with no minutes ever lasting longer than those spent anticipating burritos. In front of me, a man in a green Explorer waited patiently until, for whatever reason, the man in the blue Mazda Tribute right behind me — who had passed the menu board but not yet paid — started honking.

Green Explorer-guy got out of his car, walked right past mine, and started slamming his hands on the windshield of the Tribute, yelling, “Give some respect! Give some respect!” It was terrifying and baffling. Respect for whom? The overworked Taco Bell employees? Black Jetta? The sanctity of the drive-thru experience? He didn’t say…”

After reading these accounts, I too felt terrified and baffled.

Not being a Taco Bell customer myself, I am left with 5 burning questions:

1. Why do so many Taco Bell customers go absolutely bonkers when running into problems with their food orders?

2. What about Taco Bell’s food makes it so appealing to people with an obviously impaired ability to tolerate frustration?

3. Do Taco Bell employees get danger pay?

4. Has Taco Bell considered recruiting Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to manage their drive thru establishments?

5. What the hell is a Chalupa?

Please feel free to offer any insights you might have in the comments section below

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Is Excessive Homework in Private Schools a Customer Service Issue?

The average private school tuition is over ten thousand dollars a year (and in many large cities it is often three times that amount). Do the customers of these schools, the children who attend them and the parents who pay for them, have the same rights other customers do? In recent years, one of the areas in which this question has received most attention is the fiercely contested battle over homework. Children in private schools often have several hours of homework a night by the time they reach middle school. This often requires them to study ten to twelve hours a day with virtually no time to relax, play, or socialize with their friends during the week. It often robs them of much of their weekend as well.

This kind of work load is no small matter. If we imagined children spending twelve hours a day hunched over a sewing machine rather than a desk, we would be appalled. Indeed, play, is a crucial component of healthy child development. It affects children’s creativity, their social skills, and even their brain development.

The absence of play, physical exercise, and free-form social interaction takes a serious toll on many children. It can also have significant health implications as is evidenced by our current epidemic of childhood obesity, sleep deprivation, low self- esteem, and depression.

Experts in education recommend children have no more than ten minutes of homework per day per grade level. The average seventh grader should have no more than an hour and ten minutes a day of homework (instead of three times that amount). Having an extra two hours an evening to play, relax, or see a friend would obviously constitute a huge bump in any child’s quality of life.

The question is do parents who pay huge amounts of money to send their children to private schools have the same right to make customer complaints as the customers of any other business would? And do private schools treat complaints from their ‘customers’ as any business would (or should)?

Parents in the know have been fighting the homework battle for some years now and where private schools are concerned, with some measure of success. Speaking up and educating the school about homework research often has an impact on getting teachers to reduce the amount of homework they give (especially in younger grades). Parents of older children are advised to get become educated about homework research (you can find resources here) and to address the issue as a group. By doing so, they are far more likely to get a response from the school because they represent not just a group of parents but a group of customers as well.

What do you think? Do parents of children in private schools have the same rights as other customers do?

You might also like: How Much Homework is Too Much?

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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

Customer Service for the Undead

According to recent reports, 14,000 people a year are erroneously declared dead by the Social Security Administration. CNN reported that one woman discovered the error at her bank where the manager informed her that she was deceased. He then added insult to death blow by confiscating her ATM card and cutting it in half right in front of her, clearly oblivious to the unfortunate symbolism of his gesture. The manager's utter lack of tact was dwarfed only by his greater disregard for customer service. Even if his actions were in accordance with bank regulations, his appalling lack of consideration for his customer's feelings indicates a problem with customer service that can only be described as…deadly. Given how many people join the ranks of the ‘undead’ every year, banks, other financial institutions and even governmental agencies risk terrible damage to their reputations. One can find literally thousands of reports of such incidents, every single one of which seems to feature a financial or governmental agency displaying a complete lack of regard for the feelings (and mental health) of the customer or tax-payers in question. I came across virtually no accounts of bank managers or government agency representatives conveying compassion or understanding in these situations, or offering assistance and guidance in how the 'undead' in question can officially reanimate themselves.

While some victims’ initial response was to think the error quite hilarious, the thigh-slapping and giggles ceased rather quickly once the implications became clear. The Inspector General admits the biggest problem facing the ‘walking dead’ is that, “Erroneous death entries can lead to benefit termination and cause severe financial hardship and distress.” Further, being reanimated, at least bureaucratically, can take weeks and months of paperwork and appointments. In the meantime, the person faces not just financial hardships but the risk of identity theft as well.

The Undead Represent the Perfect Complaint Handling Opportunity

Banks, financial institutions and governmental agencies could easily turn these living-dead-people into their biggest fans and capitalize on the marketing and branding opportunities they present. All it would take to do so is to demonstrate basic care for their customers (or the tax payers who fund their agencies). For example, they could easily distribute customer service guidelines to their employees so they can better handle the situation when a dead customer walks in and stubbornly insists they are still alive. Specifically:

1. Instruct employees to handle ‘not-so-dead’ customers with both care and compassion.

2. Never argue with a customer about whether or not they are dead, especailly if they strongly feel otherwise.

3. Instruct employees to explain the error and its implications to the customer, state the banks limitations (e.g., “We’re so sorry but we are obliged to take your ATM card. However, don’t worry, we’ll issue you a new card as soon as the error is rectified and we’ll work with you to see if there’s anything we can do for you in the meantime.”)

4. Have available guidelines to give customers so they know how to remedy the situation. For example, the Identity Theft Resource Center recommends finding out who reported you as dead, getting a copy of the death certificate from the county clerk's or recorder's office where the death was reported, and filling out a form to amend the certificate. Then making an appointment at your local Social Security office to which you bring a photo ID and the certified copy of the amended death certificate.

5. Follow up with customers so they can be entered back into the system as soon as possible.

Following these steps would do much to mitigate the customer-service damage the bank or institution sustains. Instead of undead customers spreading negative word of mouth about how terribly the bank handled the situation (these days, stories about undead people spread like wildfire), they would let everyone they know how compassionate and caring their bank was and how lovely it was of them to follow-up with a phone to inquire about their efforts at bureaucratic ‘resurrection’.

Let’s be honest, when something this 'juicy' happens, everyone talks about it. By treating customers with compassion and offering them guidance and assistance, banks, financial institutions and local agencies could turn customer service death sentences into customers for life.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

You might also like Customer Service Blacklists: Throwing Out the Granny with the Bathwater

Should We Expect Customer Service at the Doctor’s Office?

Many of the pharmaceutical commercials we see on television end with the line “Talk to your doctor about (the medication in question)”, as if doctors would welcome such leisurely chats and were eager to hear our thoughts and ideas about treatment options. In reality, few doctors’ offices are renowned for their customer service. Waiting Room Blues

Today many of us are spending hours in waiting areas and treatment rooms for what amounts to only a few precious minutes of face time with our doctor, even after having waited months for an appointment. Complaints about our doctors’ bedside manners (or ‘examination-table manners’) are also extremely common. Yet very few of us feel comfortable voicing complaints about such matters, in part because it’s not easy to feel especially assertive while wearing nothing but a paper gown with all the structural integrity of wet toilet paper. Let's be honest, we’re complaining to someone who has the power to stick us with needles, or worse…fingers!

Even if we wanted to, few of us know how to complain effectively in such situations. So, here’s what you need to know:

Complain to the Correct Person

Those of us who do voice our objections to spending hours in a waiting room typically do so to the nurse or receptionist in the waiting area (much as we tend to complain to the host at a restaurant instead of to the manager). Even our doctor might not have the necessary authority to make procedural changes to how the medical practice operates. We should address our complaints to the head physician of the group, the office manager at the clinic, or the patient-relations officer at the hospital or president of the hospital.

A Medical Practice is a Business—Customers Have Power

Although we might think our complaint will not have an impact, the opposite is true. Clinics and hospitals are businesses as any other and we are their customers. Further, the long-term nature of most patient-physician relationships makes us extremely loyal customers, as we often see the same doctor for years. Loyal customers are the backbone of every business and as such we have more clout than we realize.

Put Your Complaint in Writing

Written complaints are more effective than verbal ones because they provide documentation a physician or clinic manager can share with other decision makers. Make your letter as factual and as non-emotional as possible. Remember to be reasonable. We can state that while we understand emergencies happen and doctors can run long with a given patient, we would like to be informed in a timely manner if that is the case. We can also state that if such delays happen regularly, we will have to consider transferring to another clinic or physician who has more consideration for our time.

Recruit Two Other Patients to Complain With You

Most administrators and decision makers are aware the vast majority of patients do not speak up when they are dissatisfied about issues such as waiting times, doctors’ bedside manners, or the necessity of certain procedures. If they were to receive three or more complaints about the same issue from different patients, they are likely to assume the same concern is shared by even more patients who simply haven’t voiced them. Therefore, three complaints are often sufficient to spur a clinic or practice to reexamine their procedures and address a specific problem.

The next time you find yourself waiting too long for your doctor, look around the waiting room. It shouldn’t be hard to find another patient who would be willing to write a letter if you told them how to complain effectively. Get the name of the head physician or office manager, share it with your complaining partner and banish those waiting room blues.

Does your doctor have good customer service? Leave us a comment with your thoughts. I promise it won’t hurt…

UPDATE: Here's an example of the right attitude in this article by Dr. Henry Pinkney. I'm not saying Dr. Pinkney read my blog post (mostly because...he didn't) but he 'gets it' nonetheless.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

How We Treat Call-Center Representatives

A few weeks ago I posted a tongue-in-cheek ‘Customer Service Kindness Test’ in which I suggested that our treatment of call-center representatives is a good way to assess our general kindness. Of course, my goal in doing so was both to amuse and to educate readers about how poorly we treat call center representatives and how unfair it is of us to do so. This issue is one I feel deserves far more attention than it gets. In The Squeaky Wheel, I devoted an entire chapter to a behind the scenes look at call centers (with section heading such as A Day in the Life of a Human Punching Bag).  In my Psychology Today blog I posted an article titled The Last Bullying Frontier, in which I claimed our treatment of call center representatives represented an example of bullying on a national scale, and that this phenomenon received neither recognition nor empathy from the public or the media.

A few days after I posted the Kindness Test a former call-center representative left a comment on the Bullying article which I felt represented exactly the concerns I've been trying to address. Only their comments came after having personally experienced the painful consequences of working with a hostile public on a daily basis. Here is the full version of the reader’s comment.

"As someone who has worked at call centers for the last two and a half years I'm glad to see an article about this issue.

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 anti-depressants.

Prior to my first call-center job I was a poor as dirt deadbeat with no qualifications aside from high school graduation and some technical skills, despite this I was a pretty happy guy, confident in what I did know and a fast (albeit lazy) learner. I took that first job mostly for the pay which was excellent for someone of my skills, hoping to do it for a few years and use that to pay for future study.

I've had two and a half years of work but at the end I don't have anything to show for it. As a person I've changed and not in a good way, financially I'm not any better off, my old social life is well and truly gone, I'm nowhere near as fit as I used to be and mentally I'm not in the best of places. Many of the physical issues are entirely my own fault, resulting from poor decision making and I'm not too stupid to attribute them to anything else but the depression, the nerves, the inability to feel anything slightly resembling empathy, they all come from what I went through as a CSR.

I honestly can't recommend this kind of work to any sane person. If it looked like I'd have to work at one again, I think I would become a mugger before I would even consider another call center and the worst part is…I'm not even sure that's a joke."

I was truly saddened to hear the reader's account as it conveyed the real world impact we consumers can have on the mental and physical health of call center employees and indeed on their lives as a whole. I promptly left a reply to the reader and asked them to contact me. Sure enough, the reader reached out to me through the contact sheet on this website (always a good way to reach me). I was glad to hear they were doing somewhat better, although still not fully recovered.

I hope we can begin to pay more attention to our treatment of call center representatives and spare other young workers from experiencing similar emotional ordeals. If you've had similar experiences, please feel free to comment.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Toes, Toes Everywhere

“If you’re worried about offending someone—you shouldn’t be doing stand-up comedy!” A veteran comic once said to me after a show. He had heard me mention that I was upset about offending a couple of friends who had come to see me perform. At the time I had been doing stand-up for less than a couple of months and I hadn’t really considered the impact of some of my Middle-East jokes on Middle-Easterners. “Besides,” the veteran comic added, “How do you know your friends were upset? Maybe you’re just being paranoid! Did they say something after your set?”

“Not really,” I admitted.

“See?” he said triumphantly.

“They just walked out in the middle of it,” I added.

“Oh,” he shrugged. “Let me tell you something,” he said. He leaned closer as if he were about to share a trade secret (which in a way, he was). “You can change your act and make it completely innocuous and it won’t make a difference. Someone will always be offended. You can’t avoid it. So don’t try.”

Offending people was a risk I eventually learned to accept when performing stand-up comedy, although it was one I always tried to minimize.

However, offending people was a risk I never considered when doing speaking engagements as a psychologist and author. After all, my talks were about my book and the psychology of complaining. I discussed topics such as relationships, customer service, marketing, social media, and consumer psychology. Who could I possibly offend? Whose toes could I possibly step on?

And yet, that warning, “Someone will always be offended” has turned out to be more prophetic than I could have ever imagined. There was the time I gave a talk on couple therapy to mental health professionals. A psychologist attendee asked me to comment on a case in which he described the husband as being “somewhat on the nerdy side with poor communication skills”. I wasn’t thrilled with his characterization and decided to challenge him. “I’m not sure it’s useful to call your patient ‘nerdy’. I mean, I’m assuming here, but it's not as if the guy was a regular at Star Wars conventions!” The psychologist flushed red. Turns out, he himself was a regular at Star Wars conventions (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).

The most recent case in point: This week I had the honor of giving the keynote presentation at MarketingProfs Business2Business Forum in Boston. I gave my talk: How to turn unhappy customers into fans to several hundred business to business marketers—an extremely talented, forward thinking, friendly and open-minded group.

To illustrate how defeatist our complaining psychology mindset is, I described the phenomenon of Complaints Choirs and used the Helsinki Complaints Choir as an example. I originally wanted to use the Chicago or Philadelphia Complaints Choirs as examples—because they sing in English. But I thought it best not to risk offending anyone in the audience from Chicago or Philly. I discussed the Helsinki Choirs’ two chief complaints; the first, that they don’t “get laid enough” and the second that their trams “smell of pee”. I suggested that to resolve the first issue, “Perhaps choir members should avoid taking the tram to their dates…”

But my main point was to illustrate the extent to which we tend to complain to everyone except the actual people who can fix our problems. If instead of singing their complaints in a concert hall, the Helsinki Complaints Choir sang them outside their city hall and insisted their elected officials clean up the trams—their trams might actually get cleaned.

As soon as my talk was over, an attendee marched up to me and said, “I’m from Helsinki!”

My heart sank. “I’m…eh…sure it’s a lovely city!” I said feebly. I had just spent a portion of my talk discussing how to make effective apologies, so I had the presence of mind to quickly apply the principles right there. Thankfully they worked. The marketer in question was both gracious and forgiving.

My next talk is at Google’s NYC offices. The Google folk I know are smart, creative and easy going. I feel pretty certain I won’t offend anyone. But expereince has taught me that even when there are no feet in sight, I'm still likely to find a toe to step on...

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Are You a Kind Person? Take the Test to Find Out

Most of us would like to consider ourselves kind, but are we? One of the situations in which we find it most challenging to maintain kindness is when voicing complaints to customer service representatives. Kindness is easy when we’re playing with children or puppies, or helping an octogenarian blow out candles on their birthday cake so their dentures don’t land in the icing. The real test of kindness comes in situations involving frustration and irritation and when it comes to those, customer service calls are often at the top of our list.

How kind do you tend to be when calling a customer service hotline to complain?

When calling a customer service hotline have you ever done the following?

1. Raised your voice?

Never              Rarely              Only When They Deserve It   

0                      1                                           2

2. Used profanity?

Never              Rarely             Only When They Deserve It

0                      1                                           2

3. Used insults or putdowns?

Never              Rarely             Only When They Deserve It

0                      2                                           3

4. Used disparaging non-verbal communications such as sighs, snorts, ach’s or ech’s?

Never              Rarely             Only When They Deserve It

0                      1                                           2

5. Used laughter or sarcasm to convey your disgust?

Never              Rarely             Only When They Deserve It

0                      1                                           2

6. Hung up on the representative?

Never              Rarely             Only When They Deserve It

0                      1                                           2

7. Threatened the representative in any way?

Never              Rarely             Only When They Deserve It

0                      3                                           4

8. Imitated the representative’s accent when telling your friends about the call?

Never              Rarely             Only When They Deserve It

0                      2                                           3

SCORING: *

0 – 5: Let me guess, you’re a cookie-baker, aren’t you? Cookies aside, you are truly a kind person, endowed with patience, understanding and good-will. If you make your case well, these qualities should also make you an effective complainer in customer service situations as representatives are more likely to help those who treat them with kindness and respect.

6 – 12: You are in the ‘ish’ category—you are kind’ish or kinda kind if you prefer. In other words, you have the capacity to be kind but you don’t always choose to use it. You might be letting your temper get the best of you in frustrating situations. When it comes to complaining effectively to companies and getting the result you want, you should consider doing that which is effective (using kindness and respect) as opposed to venting your emotions unproductively.

13 – 20: Yikes! Have you considered anger management? Certainly customer service calls can be frustrating but one thing is for sure, the person answering the call is not responsible for your problem. They are only there to help you and they can only do so within the limited constraints of their authority. Anger rarely makes our complaints more effective and after all, you would prefer to get a satisfying result, no?

Watch my talk: How Our Complaining Psychology Affects Our Lives and Relationships--Here (It's actually funny and engaging...).

* This test is not scientific and is meant for entertainment and thought provoking purposes only.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @Guy Winch

Venting versus Complaining on Twitter

A new survey found the number of people voicing customer service complaints to companies via Twitter and other social media platforms is continuing to grow. According to the survey, consumers under the age of 34 are significantly more likely to use social media to voice customer service dissatisfactions. Roughly 20% of these younger participants stated they use social media to voice complaints compared to only 10% of 35-45 year-olds and less than 5% of people over the age of 55. The consequences of these shifts in our complaint platforms and venues have huge implications for businesses. When complaints are voiced on social media they can potentially be viewed by hundreds of a customer’s Facebook friends or thousands of their Twitter followers. The bad word-of-mouth can therefore be orders of magnitude larger and more damaging to companies than the one-on-one interactions of traditional customer service channels (albeit customers are likely to verbally convey those complaints to a dozen people or more as well—still, far below the triple and quadruple digit exposure of social media).

I have written about the positive impact these new complaining options is having on consumer psychology as a whole, yet the picture is not as rosy as it could be. The defeatist mindset that tends to characterize our complaining psychology continues to lead us astray even where social media is concerned. Despite more and more companies joining the ranks of those who monitor social media for complaints, customers still prefer to use these platforms to vent their frustrations unproductively rather than complain effectively by seeking actual assistance.

A quick and utterly unscientific survey of my own found that searching for the term “Delta Airlines Suck” on Twitter.com yielded five times as many results as the search term “Delta Airlines Help”. I found even worse ‘suck’ versus ‘help’ ratios for Verizon (8:1), Comcast (20:1) and AT&T (20:1), all heavily weighted toward venting anger rather than asking for assistance.

I chose these companies because they actually do monitor Twitter and respond to customers who voice complaints (albeit I have no way of knowing how comprehensive their coverage is).

When we tweet a request for help, we can and should expect certain companies to respond. But how are they to respond to missives such as “You suck!”?

Perhaps we consumers need to keep in mind that companies are in the business of providing customer service, not psychotherapy. Expressing your distress by Tweeting about how much a company sucks is unlikely to elicit a response such as, “I’m sorry you’re feeling so upset, would you like to talk about what’s bothering you?”

Social media platforms provide customers with wonderful and convenient venues with which to communicate with companies directly. But they can only provide us with customer service and assistance if we let them.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @Guy Winch