Customer Service on the Titanic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

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

Picture Perfect Complaints

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

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

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

Make eye contact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The image they used to convey these positive expressions:

The Toronto Sun summed it all up nicely:

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

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

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

In my defense, I thought the picture was hilarious.

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

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

How To Complain Without Triggering Defensiveness

Cindy wrote to our Complaint Makeover Corner asking for a complaint makeover for an issue that has serious health implications for every member of her multiple family household. Here’s what she said prompted her complaint. “Our diets were changed for the better a few years back but the quality of our food has recently been heading downhill. More fatty and sodium filled processed foods are taking the place of healthy ones. These changes show not only on our shelves but on our bodies as well. I eat the bad foods and my kids eat them too.” Cindy tried speaking to the person responsible for the shopping in their home (the adults share various household responsibilities between them). “I’m not trying to rock the boat or blame anyone,” she said, “but we agreed to a healthier lifestyle a few years back and I’ve noticed more and more not so healthy food entering the kitchen. I’m horrible at portion control, we all are. But it’s hard with this food as it tastes so good. If we started buying healthier choices again it would be easier.”

Cindy was especially concerned because the members of her household do not have health insurance. Alas, she did not get the response she was hoping for. She writes, “If anyone complains about anything people get defensive or walk away. Nothing is ever resolved.”

Although Cindy’s instinct to ward off defensiveness was on target, her technique for doing so was not as she made a mistake many of us tend to make. Starting a complaint by saying “I’m not trying to rock the boat or blame anyone,” actually communicates the following, “I hope you don’t get defensive but this is your fault”. Similarly, many of us start our complaints by saying, “I hope you don’t get angry,” which practically invites the other person to get angry.

Instead, when we suspect the person to whom our complaint is addressed might get defensive, we need to use the Complaint Sandwich and open and close our complaint with positive statements (view a brief instructional video on how to construct a delicious complaint sandwich here). Cindy should have started by saying, “I really appreciate the time and effort you invest in doing the food shopping for everyone. I know it isn’t easy shopping for many people and navigating so many choices.” This introduces the topic by expressing appreciation which is less likely to trigger reflexive defensiveness.

Cindy should then have made her complaint as simply and as briefly as possible. “It would mean a lot to me if you could choose healthier foods that have less sodium and more nutritional value like the ones you were purchasing previously.” By reminding the person that they had been cooperating with the goal of eating healthier foods (before they started buying unhealthy ones) she is suggesting they need merely return to their own earlier standards, not just hers.

Finally, it is best to end with another positive statement to motivate the person to absorb the complaint and to increase the likelihood of their responding to it positively, “I know it’s asking a lot because those bad foods are incredibly tasty and tempting but if you can make an effort to avoid them it would truly help me out. And if there are any of my household responsibilities I could modify to make your life easier, I’d be happy to reciprocate.” Ending with a promise of reciprocity when it is relevant and applicable to do so often motivates the other person to heed our complaint and make efforts to address our needs.

If you would like to submit a complaint for the complaint makeover corner please feel free to do so using the form on the contact page.

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

Venting versus Complaining on Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @Guy Winch

New Survey: Bad Customer Service Impairs Our Quality of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

But if so, what are we to do?

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Are Funny Complaint Letters Effective?

Anyone who tries writing a funny complaint letter quickly realizes (or should) how difficult  it is to strike the correct tone—so the letter reads as amusing rather than insulting. If we misjudge the humor, our letter can sound offensive, condescending, angry or sarcastic, all of which will render it ineffective in terms of getting the result we want. However the biggest danger such efforts face is simply coming across as—not funny. The goal of a humorous complaint letter is to make it stand out and get a response. However, to do so, the letter must include all the traditional elements of a complaint; a clear description of the problem or incident, the necessary details and the request for redress. Including all these particulars and doing so in a way that is genuinely funny is truly no easy task.

Let’s look at two examples of complaints and the differences between effective and ineffective attempts at humor.

Complaints about Airline Food:

In 2010, a man traveling on Ryanair complained that he was served a chicken sandwich which suffered from being “Too rubbery,” and appeared markedly different than it did in the menu photo (as many of us do, the sandwich apparently used a photo that implied it was better looking than it was in reality). I cannot know for sure whether the man used humor when voicing his ‘rubber chicken’ complaint but what I do know is that his complaint was so angry, he was arrested by sky marshals.

We all feel angry when complaining but if we wish to complain in humor, the anger cannot be too dominant. Let’s illustrate the point by examining another complaint about airline food:

A passenger on a Virgin Atlantic flight in 2008 was so appalled by the meal he received he wrote to Sir Richard Branson (President of Virgin) and included pictures of his meal. After a polite and respectful opening, he embedded the following image and said,

"Look at this Richard. Just look at it. I imagine the same questions are racing through your brilliant mind as were racing through mine on that fateful day. What is this? Why have I been given it? You don't get to a position like yours Richard with anything less than a generous sprinkling of observational power so I KNOW you will have spotted the tomato next to the two yellow shafts of sponge on the left. Yes, it's next to the sponge shaft without the green paste. That's got to be the clue hasn't it?"

The man went on to describe the second dish: “On the left we have a piece of broccoli and some peppers in a brown, glue-like oil, and on the right the chef had prepared some mashed potato. The potato masher had obviously broken and so it was decided the next best thing would be to pass the potatoes through the digestive tract of a bird.”

Lastly, he described the shrink wrapped desert: “I needed a sugar hit. Luckily, there was a small cookie provided. It had caught my eye earlier because of its baffling presentation:  It appears to be in an evidence bag from the scene of a crime. A crime against bloody cooking. Either that or some sort of backstreet, underground cookie, purchased off a gun-toting maniac high on his own supply of yeast.”

While the anger is evident in the letter, it is far overshadowed by the humor and that is what makes the complaint so effective. How effective? The passenger received a personal call of apology from Sir Richard Branson himself.

Complaints about Feminine Hygiene Products:

The following letter was written to Procter & Gamble in 2007.

“Have you ever had a menstrual period, Mr. Thatcher? Ever suffered from "the curse"? I'm guessing you haven't. Well, my "time of the month" is starting right now. As I type, I can already feel hormonal forces violently surging through my body. Just a few minutes from now, my body will adjust and I'll be transformed into what my husband likes to call "an inbred hillbilly with knife skills." Isn't the human body amazing?

As brand manager in the feminine-hygiene division, you've no doubt seen quite a bit of research on what exactly happens during your customers' monthly visits from Aunt Flo. Therefore, you must know about the bloating, puffiness, and cramping we endure, and about our intense mood swings, crying jags, and out-of-control behavior. You surely realize it's a tough time for most women.

Which brings me to the reason for my letter. Last month, while in the throes of cramping so painful I wanted to reach inside my body and yank out my uterus, I opened an Always maxi pad, and there, printed on the adhesive backing, were these words: Have a Happy Period. Are you fucking kidding me?”

The letter went on in much the same vein. Although it is posted on various websites, it is unclear whether the woman’s letter ever got a response and there is some doubt as to whether it was ever sent to the company. Even if the letter had been sent, it is likely to have been ineffective. Why? Despite the obvious humor, the letter was laced with profanity and unnecessarily cringe-worthy, graphic descriptions (for example, of male genitalia getting shoved into a grill). Cursing and profane graphic details are just like anger in that they only distract the complaint recipient from the message of the actual complaint.

Let’s examine another letter about a similar issue, this one written by Write the Company a website devoted to posting hilarious letters to companies and the company’s response. Here is an excerpt from a letter they wrote to the makers of o.b. tampons.

“I’m writing on behalf of my friend Brooklyn…According to Brooklyn, Super size o.b. Tampons aren’t so super anymore because they’re now more like the size of a small regular. She claims they used to be the size of the current Ultra Plus. As a guy, I’m not sure what any of this means. All I know is if I’m getting the Super size of anything, I want fries and a beverage with it, too.

…I believe Brooklyn’s primary problem is related to absorption. She used the word “Monsoon” to describe her flow. At that point I wanted to do what most people do when a monsoon is coming — RUN like hell! This brings me to my next question: Is the o.b. Tampons Super size actually too small for some women? Should I suggest she insert two of them to make up for the shortfall? Why has this size worked up until now and all of a sudden she finds herself up a creek without a paddle with a monsoon on the way?”

The humor in this letter does not obscure the message of the complaint because the descriptions are funny without being offensively graphic. As a result, the company indeed responded to the complaint and the letter was even referenced in a New York Times article about o.b. and the shrinking tampon debacle.

The bottom line is that most of us should avoid using humor when writing complaint letters as we are unlikely to have the skill to do so well enough to get a result. I have performed stand-up comedy hundreds of times, yet the only humorous complaint letter I ever dared attempting was one I wrote to Tony Hsieh the CEO of Zappos.com, and I risked doing so only because my complaint was not exactly…real. You can read the letter and hear about the response here.

Have you come across funny but effective complaint letters? Feel free to share them with us in the comment section below.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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The Squeaky Wheel: Reader Success Stories

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

Squeaking a Mortgage Company into Submission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Success Letters from Readers

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

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

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

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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Complaint Makeover Corner

A.L. wrote the following (some information was omitted for privacy). My wife is addicted to her iPhone. She's on it all the time, checks messages from work during dinner, plays games on it when we're watching a show together on TV. Takes it with her from room to room in the house. I've told her I think she's addicted to it but she says she needs it for work (real estate). I've told her it's like she's married to the phone and not to me! We argue about it all the time. Whenever I bring it up she gets very defensive and we argue but nothing changes. Last night she took it out during a movie and someone seated nearby told her it was disruptive. She put it away but she was angry I didn't say something to stand up for her. No kidding. It bothered me too! Please help! A.L.

Dear A.L.

Finding yourself in a threesome with your spouse and their phone or blackberry is an extremely common problem these days. Your wife might need to check her phone for work but you should still be able to enjoy some phone-free periods where the phone is set aside or turned off. You voiced your complaint several times but doing so only led to arguing. I definitely understand your frustration. However, your irritation led you to commit a number of important complaining errors that rendered your complaint ineffective.

First, instead of discussing the specific incident at hand, you generalized your complaint into a criticism. Accusing your wife of being married to her iPhone is a sweeping generalization that would make most people defensive. Complaining about a specific incident would make the exact same point and it would also make your complaint easier for her to hear and absorb.

Second, accusing your wife of iPhone addiction made your complaint sound too angry and harsh. Angry complaints always make the complaint recipient defensive and cause them to tune out the actual content of our complaint.

Third, you did not use the Complaint Sandwich (placing your complaint between two positive statements). You can find a brief Complaint Sandwich tutorial here.

Following is your complaint made over to be more effective. Feel free to substitute your own words as long as the elements and spirit of the complaint remain the same. And please let us know how things worked out.

“Honey, you have a demanding job with difficult hours and I really appreciate the effort you put into it. I know I get frustrated when you have to take a call or respond to an urgent message from work but it’s because I really look forward to spending time with you. If we could designate times when we both turned off our phones, perhaps during dinner or when we’re at the movies, I would feel much less frustrated and I could be more supportive. I really want us to enjoy our free time together and focus on each other and I know we could figure out something that works for both of us.”

Want to have a complaint made over? Submit your complaint using the form in the Contact Tab.

My Attempts to Elicit Authentic Smiles at the Post Office

All complaints carry within them a request for help. One of the most effective ways to elicit help from others is to flash them an authentic smile (for a full explanation of why this is so, see my blog on Psychology Today). Authentic smiles (also called Duchenne smiles after the French physician who first described them) involve not just our mouth and lips but also our cheek muscles and eyes. True smiles, by definition, must create crow’s feet. Manufacturing a convincing Duchenne smile is not necessarily simple. Give it a few tries in the mirror and you will quickly realize how easy it is to appear constipated rather than joyful. The only way to be sure we’ve produced a true Duchenne smile is if we get one in return, crow’s feet and all. I wanted to try out my own Duchenne skills, so I headed out into the urban jungle.

I could have gone the easy route, headed straight to a day spa and flashed a Duchenne at the receptionist. But getting an authentic smile out of someone surrounded by potpourri, miniature waterfalls and Enya is practically cheating. I decided to go for the highest level of difficulty I could think of—my local Manhattan Post Office at lunch hour. Besides, I had a package to send.

My Post Office branch has twelve customer windows only one or two of which are usually open during lunch hour. The fact that lunch hour also happens to be when most customers are free to come to the post office makes for long lines, much grumbling and widespread irritability on both sides of the counter. Indeed, such was the case when I arrived. But much to my dismay, one of the two open windows was occupied by the most intimidating postal worker in the entire branch.

This postal clerk was at least six feet tall and looked like she could take most men her size in a fight. I had seen her bark at customers for the slightest mistakes, like sealing priority mail packages incorrectly, “The top of the envelope has to reach the blue line!” I never saw anyone argue with her or voice any kind of complaint. Most customers approached her window like they were stepping up to Seinfeld’s soup Nazi.

Thirty minutes later, with only one man ahead of me in line, I heard her familiar voice bark “Window two!” The man in front of me, who had been busy texting on his phone, looked up, took one look at her, quickly began patting his jacket as if looking for something and waved me past. I knew he was faking and hesitated. “Window two!” she barked, glaring at me directly. There was no turning back.

I walked up to her window. She was gripping a thick roll of priority mail stickers with her meaty hand. She could swat me with it and knock me out cold. For science! I said to myself, do it for science! I took a deep breath and gave her the most authentic smile I could muster. Not a muscle on her face moved. Damn! Was she immune to the powers of a Duchenne smile or did I just look constipated? Of course, I realized. I couldn’t go from zero to Duchenne in one second flat with someone like her. I had to establish some kind of rapport first. I had an idea but it would be risky. I glanced behind to make sure I could make a run for it if necessary and took the plunge.

“Each time I come here during lunch hour there are only two windows open out of twelve,” I began. Her eyebrows narrowed and she leaned forward, as if daring me to complain. “And you’re always in one of them.” I placed my package on her scale. “So…?” she said challengingly as her grip on the priority mail sticker roll tightened. “So, I was wondering,” I continued casually, “who exactly did you piss off?”

She didn’t even look up! She just entered the weight of my package in her computer. But then I saw her shoulders give a slight shudder. “Who did I piss off?” she muttered as her shoulders shuddered some more, “Who did I piss off?” Now she was in full out chuckle. She looked up and handed me the receipt and I quickly flashed my best Duchenne yet.

And this time—I had her! Before she knew what was happening, her lips opened and her cheek muscles pushed upward creating crow’s feet around her eyes.

It was magical!

It was also brief. Her facial muscles quickly snapped back into their scowl-like repose. After all, she was in sight of other customers and she did have a reputation to uphold. But I felt triumphant nonetheless.

Using authentic smiles in complaint situations can make our complaints much more effective. But doing so just to brighten someone’s day can have its own rewards. The next time you see a stressed employee at the supermarket checkout, a harried sales associate or yes, even a gruff postal worker, give them an authentic smile and see a twinkle return to their eye. Doing so will put a twinkle in your eye as well.