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

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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: 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.

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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

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

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

Comparing (Rotten) Apples and (Sunny) Oranges

I used to get my hair cut at an old barber shop across the street from where I lived in New York City. It was a narrow sliver of a shop with 5 chairs facing 5 mirrors and a long bench for waiting customers behind them. The woman who worked at the middle chair was a stern Eastern European lady who was in a habitual foul mood. She constantly barked at the other barbers or muttered complaints about them, even though they were only three feet away. I once commented on her absence and my barber, also from Eastern Europe said, “Yes, is much nicer when Chernobyl not here.”

Indeed, ‘Chernobyl’ created such a negative vibe in the entire shop that I often dreaded going there. I eventually decided to look for a new place to get my haircut.

One rotten apple had soured me on a whole barrel of barbers.

Several months later, I walked into a haircut shop on 14th street in New York City. Now, any New Yorker can tell you that most of the shops on 14th street are not exactly known for their customer service, so my expectations were low. Coincidently, the woman behind the counter was also Eastern European. She flashed me a radiant smile, told me the wait would only be a few minutes and asked me to have a seat. Then she excused herself and got to work sweeping hair.

Every time she passed a waiting customer she looked up and flashed them a huge smile and chatted with them if they were regulars. As she swept around each of the chairs, she also made sure to smile at the person cutting hair, who always acknowledged her with a pleasant nod.

After my haircut, she put aside her broom and rushed to the front counter to take my payment. She flashed another smile, complimented me on the haircut and asked if I was interested in buying any hair products. I declined.

She said excitedly, “Okay, but can I just ask you to smell this hair gel? It has a wonderful orange scent—I love it! Here, just give it a smell.” I took a whiff and agreed that it smelled great. She flashed another radiant smile and gave me a sample packet. “This is your first time here, right? Can I give you our card?” I took one gladly.

As I was leaving, the owner of the shop come back from his lunch break and took his seat at the counter. The young woman waved goodbye and went back to sweeping the floors. The owner saw my expression and said, “We call her Sunshine”. I could see why. I've been a regular customer ever since.

Employees who are especially bright and cheerful can set the tone for an entire small business of office just as those who are especially irritable and unpleasant can. Consequently, a single person can have a hugely disproportionate impact on the general vibe, the customer experience and even customer loyalty, either positively or negatively.

While the owner of the shop on 14th street was aware that Sunshine was a huge asset to his business (she was even adept at upselling!), the owners of the shop nearer my apartment were completely oblivious as to how Chernobyl’s radiating negativity was costing them customers.

Monitoring employees’ general attitude and the impact some staff members can have on others as well as on the customer experience is something few managers and small business owners do.

Small businesses owners would be well advised to pay closer attention to the general atmosphere and tone of their facilities and make hiring decisions accordingly. Replacing a Chernobyl with a Sunshine does require an investment in hiring and training, but it can invigorate an entire staff and pay unexpected dividends in customer retention and loyalty.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

The Squeaky Wheel: Reader Success Stories

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

Squeaking a Mortgage Company into Submission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Success Letters from Readers

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

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

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

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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The Heavy (Metal) Price of Bad Customer Service

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

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

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

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

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

The Mistakes Cisco Made in Complaint Management:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Consequences of Cisco’s Poor Customer Service Efforts

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

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

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

The Moral of Customer Service Stories like Mike’s.

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

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

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

Cisco Sucks! by Mike Soltis on YouTube

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

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

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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Finding Customer Service Solutions within Customer Complaints

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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Finding Customer Service Solutions within Customer Complaints

Customer complaints provide valuable information for companies because they alert them to potentially costly problems with their products, services or procedures. Fixing these problems can improve customer service and reduce customer attrition. But companies who listen closely to customer complaints might find more than mere information—they might find inspiration too. Last month I was traveling to Orlando Florida and had an early flight back to New York City. I had already checked in online and had no luggage to check so I arrived at Orlando International Airport (MCO) an hour before my departure time and was dismayed to see a huge mass of people waiting to pass security.

I would have joined the line, except there wasn’t one. Instead, people stood in a pulsing mass letting the movement of the crowd funnel them toward the distant point at which roped lanes began forming orderly lines. Progress was slow causing many passengers to worry they would miss their flight. But with no airport personnel in sight to assist such passengers and the mood of the crowd being as it was, no one attempted to go around the mass of people to the front.

Indeed, tensions in the ‘throng’ ran high and the complaints were flying. People griped about the lack of crowd control, the stupidity of not extending the roped areas to accommodate the extra passengers or the lack of signage offering apologies for the extended wait times and crowded conditions. I heard several people pledge never to use this particular airport again.

Once I reached the civilized haven of the roped lines things improved only marginally. The TSA workers had to halt the scanners periodically because it took a while for people on the other side to retrieve their belongings. An elderly couple in front of me took minutes to pick out coins from their plastic bin (“Larry, don’t forget the dimes! They’re little! Look in the corners!”).

All in all, going through security was a customer service nightmare, one that must cost MCO untold revenue in customer attrition alone.

However, any airport executive standing in line with me that morning and actually listening to their customers would have been shocked to discover that the solution to every single one of their customer service problems was present in the complaints voiced by their customers!

1. Extend roped lines to accommodate the extra passengers waiting to go through security.

2. Include signage to apologize for the long lines and inform customers of wait times.

3. Have workers patrol the lines so they can assist passengers who are late for their flights.

The final customer service idea came to me when watching the elderly couple fish for pennies (and dimes) in the plastic bins after they had gone through the scanner:

4. Place receptacles for various charities before people go through the scanners. This will provide travelers the option of donating their change to charity and avoiding the ‘hunt & peck’ exercise to retrieve coins from the plastic bins. International travelers are often thrilled to get rid of their change and many domestic travelers will opt to donate their change as well—benefitting both the airport by having lines move quicker and many charities.

I should add that when I mentioned this idea to the TSA worker at the scanner, her eyes lit up and she rushed her supervisor over so he could take my name and write the suggestion down on a comment card. I have no way of knowing if my idea made its way to airport executives but their front-line employees certainly thought it should.

In short, companies that truly listen to their customers’ complaints will discover both information about important problems and often, the solutions to these problems as well. In many situations, such as the case at Orlando International Airport, fixes are easy to implement and cost effective.

Companies should therefore do more than just listen to customer complaints they should actively seek solutions within them.

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Why Customer Service at Harry Potter World's The Three Broomsticks Lacks Magic

Several months ago I visited The Three Broomsticks, a cafeteria style eatery in Harry Potter World in Orlando’s Universal Islands of Adventure. After waiting in long lines, customers reach the food distributors, most of whom were scowling in general annoyance and impatience as they handed over trays of Cornish pasties and Butterbeer. The cafeteria workers’ lack of customer service skills, especially compared to the other park employees was huge. The next day, at another Orlando theme park, I witnessed cafeteria workers radiate exasperation as they distributed burgers and pasta to an admittedly indecisive group of customers (“I’ll have the hamburger. No wait, I’ll have the pasta instead. Does that come with fries...I can’t do that? Then, I’ll take the burger, you said that does come with fries right?”).

Interestingly, the customers at both theme parks seemed oblivious to the servers’ nasty attitude.

For comparison, I also dined in several theme park restaurants where the waiters were always extremely friendly. Indeed, if any of them had been sullen and impatient, I would have found it offensive and complained, as would many restaurant goers. In other words, while we all expect decent service in restaurants, apparently in cafeterias—anything goes.

And yet, from the customer’s point of view, waiters and cafeteria workers have more in common than not. In both cases we ask them questions about the menu, tell them what we want to eat, and wait for them to give us our food. The only difference is the location of the transaction (a counter as opposed to tableside) and the mechanism of food delivery—in cafeterias we bring our trays to our tables rather than a waiter doing so for us.

So, why we are so accepting of poor customer service in cafeterias? Why is our consumer psychology such that we’ve given cafeteria workers a pass on customer service?

Have our collective experiences in middle and high school cafeterias left us emotionally scarred? Seeing as we’re unable to set reasonable expectations when faced with food technicians wearing hairnets, it’s certainly possible. Maybe being separated by a counter creates some kind of imaginary privacy shield in our minds that renders scowls inoffensive. Perhaps we take the self-service aspect of cafeterias too literally and expect customer service to be self-served as well.

In The Squeaky Wheel, I explain how our complaining psychology is often characterized by a learned helplessness that renders us unlikely to speak up when dissatisfied. But our acceptance of poor customer service in cafeterias is not an artifact of learned helplessness it is a consequence of unjustifiably low expectations on our part. The good news is where we place our expectations is up to us, it is in our conscious control.

If we expected better customer service in cafeterias, more of us would complain when someone in a hairnet scowled at us with impatience from across the counter. And if more of us complained to cafeteria management, cafeterias would have fewer impatient scowlers serving us food.

Those who have yet to visit Harry Potter World will have to take this on faith, but trust me, the flavor profiles of Cornish pasties and Butterbeer could only be significantly improved—if they were served with a smile.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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Customer Service Leadership and Parallel Processes

Twenty years ago, I received couple therapy training from one of the preeminent masters in the field who had a unique approach to teaching and supervision. He believed the manner in which a therapist presented a case in supervision paralleled the couple’s faulty dynamic. If a couple was angry and explosive, the therapist often sounded irritable and intense when presenting the case in supervision. The therapist of a passive and distant couple would sound helpless and indifferent. Our teacher’s approach was to convey his suggestions to the therapist in the supervision group in the exact manner and style in which he wanted the therapist to interact with the couple. If the couple, and consequently the therapist were too passive and indifferent, our supervisor would become extremely animated, raise his voice, move around the room and wave his hands as he spoke to the therapist about their case. If the couple was explosive and the therapist too intense and stirred up, our teacher would instruct them to present the case over again but to do so in a slow whisper.

These exercises and demonstrations of parallel process were effective ways to get the therapist and consequently, the couple to change their dynamic and interactional styles. My years teaching and supervising couple therapy and the attention I gave to emotional and psychological parallel processes in the supervision process heavily influenced my views on customer service, corporate culture and leadership and especially consumer psychology and they informed my thinking when writing The Squeaky Wheel.

Parallel processes are not only common in couple therapy training and supervision groups, they are features of all human systems and organizations. Parallel process in workplace environments operate in extremely similar ways. The emotional tone, communication style and relational dynamics that upper management convey in their interactions with middle management and through them to a company’s front line customer service representatives are always be mirrored to some degree or another in how customer service representatives interact with customers.

Such ideas are confirmed by studies in numerous domains. For example, one study demonstrated that when call-center employees feel unjustly treated by their supervisors the ‘injustice’ trickles down to the employees’ treatment of customers (Rupp et. a., 2006).

In his book Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman states, “Leaders set much of the emotional tone that flows through the halls of their organizations; this is turn has consequences for how well the collective objectives are met. Leaders need to nurture “social wisdom,” the qualities that allow the people we connect with in the workplace to flourish” (Goleman 2006, 315).

Corporate culture therefore encompasses not just a company’s stated values, ideals, and beliefs; it is embedded in the dynamics of how company leaders communicate and interact with managers and employees through the ranks. In other words, it is not what compan leaders say, it is what they do that create parallel processes of psychological and emotional dynamics that ripple down the company hierarchy to have a direct impact on their customer service representatives and consequently on their customers.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

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Denhardt, Robert B. and Denhardt, Janet V. 2006. The Dance of Leadership: The Art of Leading in Business, Government, and Society. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Goleman, Daniel. 2006. Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Rupp, D. E. et al, 2006. When customers lash out. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91 (4) pp. 91-978

A Valentine’s Day Customer Experience Conundrum

Like most couple therapists, I usually spend the week following Valentine’s Day listening to tales of romantic evenings gone very wrong. Far too often, what should have been an evening full of romance and sex turns into an evening full of disappointment, hurt feelings and arguing. More often than not, despite men’s good intentions, the gift was to blame. In an effort to minimize the damage this year, I posted the Men’s Guide for Crossing the Valentine’s Day Minefield on my blog on Psychology Today.

But let’s examine the situation from a different perspective. Is it possible to solve this problem at its source? More specifically, should female sales and customer service representatives intervene if they witness a man about to purchase an obviously terrible gift for Valentine’s Day?

Let’s illustrate the complexity of the issue with an example: It’s Sunday, February 13. A man walks into a mall looking for a Valentine’s Day gift. Earlier that day he asked his wife what he could get her for Valentine’s Day but she seemed slightly put off by the question. The man reached that conclusion because she scowled and walked away without answering. So he’s at the mall, hoping that something will grab his eye.

The man passes a bookstore and remembers his wife loves self-help and diet books. He picks up two new diet books and a self-help book titled The Squeaky Wheel because it looks fun and his wife loves complaining. He takes the books to the female sales associate behind the counter and says, “Could you wrap these for Valentine’s Day? And I’ll also take that card with two pigs kissing on a heart shaped rug. My wife loves animals!”

There are several customer service and customer experience questions this raises: For the sake of argument, let’s assume whatever the sales associate says would be said delicately and with tact.

1. Should the sales associate speak up and warn the man about his gift choices? 2. Would men appreciate similar warnings/advice or would they be insulted? 3. Could such warnings increase customer loyalty, harm it? 4. Would stores benefit from having a Valentine’s Day customer service pledge: Shop with us and be worry free! Our female associates will make sure you find the right Valentine’s Day gift!

Feel free to weigh in with your comments and thoughts.

And for those readers who are wondering, “What was wrong with getting her books she likes in the first place? Besides, pigs are adorable!” please read the following list.

Five Facts about Valentine’s Day Gifts Every Man Should Know 1. Lingerie is a gift for you not for her. 2. Not everything with red hearts on it is romantic. 3. Chocolates and helium balloons are okay if you’re both in grade school, not otherwise. 4. No, not any red flower will do. Stick to roses. 5. Self-improvement gifts are insulting.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

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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. Loyal customers might be highly coveted but they are also hard to come by. Many companies attempt to improve customer loyalty by offering reward programs and other such incentives or by focusing on enhancing the customer experience. But while reward programs might increase repurchasing motivation in the short term but they cease to do so as soon as the program ends because they do little to change how customers feel about the company.

Customer loyalty occurs because customers’ purchasing behaviors become driven by their feelings for the company, not vice versa. Targeting customer behaviors while neglecting the emotional component of customer loyalty is a mistake far too many companies make.

A successful customer loyalty strategy must establish opportunities for a company to forge deep and personal connections with their customers. Fortunately, companies are provided perfect vehicles to create exactly this kind of relationship change—when customers voice complaints.

Psychologically speaking, complaints represent a rupture in the bond between the customer and the company that places their relationship in crisis. Crises are pivotal times for all relationships because they can be damaged beyond repair if handled poorly. But demonstrating the skills and care to mend the rupture and overcome the crisis actually makes the relationship stronger because doing so leads to a dramatic increase in trust.

Trust is the foundation upon which loyalty is built. Once we trust that a person or company can work with us to resolve a crisis, we automatically feel more loyal to them. By providing excellent complaint handling and service recovery procedures to their customers, companies can mend the relational rupture, prove their trustworthiness and increase customer loyalty.

Indeed, studies repeatedly demonstrate that successful service recoveries make customers more loyal to a company than they were before they ever encountered a problem. In addition, customers typically relate stories of successful service recoveries to numerous friends and acquaintances, providing excellent word of mouth for the company in question.

Companies that want to increase customer loyalty should therefore make it as easy as possible for their customers to complain. In addition to gaining vital information about potential problems, excellent service recoveries enhances customers’ confidence and trust, deepens their emotional connection to the company and dramatically increases their customer loyalty.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

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