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

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

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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Does Your Company Know How to Apologize Effectively?

Most customer service representatives are trained to voice apologies when handling complaint calls but they are rarely trained to do so correctly. Consider the following scenario: A customer calls a contact center to complain about a new video camera that malfunctioned after only two days, erasing everything the customer had taped. The representative jumps in and says, “I’m sorry your video camera malfunctioned” and then goes on to tell the customer the “good news”, that their warrantee provides them free parts and labor at a nearby service center and a turnaround time of only two to four weeks.

The representative apologized, named the issue correctly and even offered a solution. The vast majority of companies would consider such an apology acceptable and sufficient—but is it?

What if the footage the customer lost in the malfunctioning camera was the birth of his first child; images of his wife holding their newborn daughter, the joy and tears they both felt after years of undergoing fertility treatments, precious moments lost forever? Would “I’m sorry your video camera malfunctioned” represent a sufficient apology then?

The reason many companies fall short in the apology department is that truly effective apologies are more complicated to pull off than we realize.

What Science Discovered about Effective Apologies

Despite years of research into conflict resolution and forgiveness, the role of apologies in most studies are typically noted by their absence or presence alone (i.e., whether an apology was offered or not). But recent studies have found that beyond mere expressions of regret (“I’m sorry”), three additional components play a crucial role in determining whether an apology will be effective in eliciting forgiveness and mending relationship ruptures:

(A) Expressions of empathy

(B) Adequate offers of compensation

(C) Acknowledging that certain norms and expectations were violated.

While most companies offer some form or redress or compensation (for example, fixing or replacing a malfunctioning video camera) they are not always adequate. Further, statements of empathy and acknowledgments that certain norms and expectation were violated are rarely expressed by service representatives.

How Customer Service Representatives Should Apologize

The two biggest mistakes service representatives make when apologizing (though it is of note that there are still companies whose representatives fail to voice apologies of any kind) are:

(A) Doing so too soon.

(B) Having a one size fits all formula such as “I’m sorry you had trouble with [blank]”.

Such approaches are easy to teach and therefore they might reduce a company’s contact center training costs in the short term, but the company will lost revenue in the long run because such apologies contribute to unsuccessful service recoveries, lead to poor customer retention and foster poor word of mouth.

Effective apologies must adhere to the following principles:

1. Customer service representatives should only apologize after allowing the customer to express their complaint fully. Until they know what exactly they are apologizing for, any statement of regret they make will not seem authentic to the customer.

2. The representative must offer an empathic statement that reflects the customer’s perception of their problem’s severity. In our example, something like, “Oh my goodness, I am so sorry to hear that! I can only imagine how upset you must feel,” or “Oh, I am truly sorry this happened on such an important occasion!” would be much closer to expressing the necessary amount of empathy for such an unfortunate incident.

3. When relevant, the representative should acknowledge the problem the customer encountered represents a clear departure from what customers should expect from the company ordinarily (i.e., that the company too finds it unacceptable). For example, “We take pride in our products and it is extremely rare for one to malfunction this way right out of the box. Again, I cannot tell you how sorry I am for this to have happened.”

4. The goal of offering compensation (by having the item fixed or replaced) is to restore a sense of justice and fairness. In our example, having the video camera fixed is insufficient as it is a standard procedure that does nothing to acknowledge the customer’s unique circumstance. The representative could state the standard procedure but then offer to overnight the customer a replacement so he does not miss capturing any more of his daughter’s first days or offer another form of unusual compensatory action. Making such gestures is vital to restoring the customer’s sense of justice and fairness and by doing so, rendering the representative’s apologies both convincing and ultimately effective.

Of course, there is more to a successful service recovery than an apology alone. In our example the representative must make sure the customer has no other issues or dissatisfactions, they must collect all the pertinent information and file the necessary paperwork. After the call, they should follow up, first to confirm the replacement video camera arrived in the timeframe stated to the customer and then by calling or emailing the customer to verify they are satisfied with the resolution offered to them.


If a company’s service recoveries are to be successful, it is crucial for companies to train their service representatives to apologize correctly. Lackluster or insincere sounding apologies are often as bad as no apology at all and they can end up hurting the company by contributing to negative word of mouth and increased customer attrition.

On the other hand, effective apologies can repair and strengthen the core relationship between companies and their customers by building trust and confidence in the company. Companies whose representatives apologize effectively will see gains in customer loyalty and an increase in positive word of mouth.

Elton John was only half right: Sorry might be the hardest word—but it’s not an impossible one.

Copyright 2010 Guy Winch Ph.D.


When apologies work: How matching apology components to victims’ self-construals facilitates forgiveness. Fehr, R., & Gelfand, M. (2010). Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 113 (1), 37-50.

The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem by Guy Winch Ph.D. (January 2011 Walker and Company).

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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