The Squeaky Wheel and the Real Estate (Ka)Boom

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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

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

Taco Bell and Complaints Gone Wild

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Do Taco Bell employees get danger pay?

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

5. What the hell is a Chalupa?

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

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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

What I Learned about Corporate Culture by Speaking at Google

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

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

The First Lesson I Learned at Google

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

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

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

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

The Second Lesson I Learned at Google

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

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

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

The Third Lesson I Learned at Google

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

My Year as a Chronic Complainer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The chronic complaining slope is a slippery one indeed.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Toes, Toes Everywhere

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

“Not really,” I admitted.

“See?” he said triumphantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Are 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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When Customer Service Hell is Story Telling Heaven

After spending the last few years researching complaining psychology, I’ve heard many stories and anecdotes about complaints—thousands of them! The other day someone asked me if the sheer volume of complaints I’m exposed to have made them indistinguishable in my mind, whether they’ve blended into one large whine-a-thon. In fact, there is a certain category of complaints I recall so well, I can recite every one of them as if they happened to me personally (which fortunately, most of them did not). What makes these complaints so memorable to me is they all made me laugh, either because the story itself was hilarious or because the storyteller made it so.

What makes a good story, at least to me, is humor. Complaints, by their very nature, can be the perfect foil for juxtaposing a frustrating or annoying situation with hilarious commentary or snarky observations. We all complain about a huge variety of topics, many of which are far too serious for humor but the context that often provides the most amusing stories is our encounters with customer service.

My own stories of customer service woes are usually related to my name. Guy Winch is a simple name, one would think, with my both first and last names having only one syllable, yet it gets butchered more regularly than turkeys at thanksgiving. The following exchange took place with a Dell technical support representative some years ago.

I called about my printer malfunctioning just when I was printing out my notes before leaving to give a lecture. Needless to say, I was stressed for time and irritable. After being on hold for many minutes, getting disconnected and calling again, I was put through to a representative with a strong Indian accent

“Thank you for calling Dell. My name is Tiffany. How may I help you today?”

“I’m having problems with my printer.”

“I’m sorry to hear you’re having problems with your Dell printer. May I have your name please, Sir?”

            “It’s Guy Winch.”

            “Thank you. May I call you Buy?”

            “I prefer Guy.”

            “Yes, Mr. Gay. How can I help you today?”

            “You can start by getting my name right…Tiffany. It’s Guy. Guy Winch.”

            “Yes, of course. Sorry, Sir. Is Die Wench Correct?”

            “Only if you’re channeling Jack the Ripper.”

            “Who…? I… Sorry, how may I help you with your printer today, Mr. Wench?”

The full version of the encounter, which encompassed three representatives, all butchering my name in different ways, is in my book, The Squeaky Wheel (pages 216-217). Although I was quite annoyed at the time, I couldn’t wait to finish the call and document the interaction because I knew I would find it hilarious as soon as my irritability passed and I knew that made it a good story.

I’ve also heard many dramatic customer service stories, as well as many heartwarming ones and some which were incredibly touching. They were good stories all. But the real crowd pleasers are always the funny ones.

Customer service can be hell but add in humor and you’re in story telling heaven.

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch