Picture Perfect Complaints

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

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

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

Make eye contact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The image they used to convey these positive expressions:

The Toronto Sun summed it all up nicely:

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

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

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

In my defense, I thought the picture was hilarious.

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

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

What Marital and Customer Service Complaints Have in Common

Customers and marital partners have much in common when it comes to their complaints. As I explain in my book The Squeaky Wheel, the same psychological forces get triggered in our minds when we have a complaint, regardless of whether it’s directed at a company or at our loved ones. In both situations we get so intimidated by the gauntlet of conversations and arguments that await us that we often choose to do nothing (which has real world as well as psychological consequences; we don’t resolve the matter and we feel frustrated and helpless about it as well). When we do choose to speak up, both consumers and people in relationships share a journey that can have eerie similarities.

Following is a side by side (more like row by row) comparison of conversations involving a consumer complaint (about a toaster oven that keeps malfunctioning) and a marital complaint (about a husband that keeps forgetting to clean the garage).

Stating the Complaint:

Customer [to the representative]: I purchased the toaster oven because it has an automatic timer but the timer simply doesn’t do what it’s supposed to. Every time it looks like it’s working, it starts whining and stops.

Representative: I’m sorry you’re having trouble with…the toaster oven. That must be frustrating for you.

Wife [to her husband]: You promised to clean the garage months ago but you simply don’t do what you’re supposed to. Every time you look like you’re working, you start whining and stop.

Husband: I’m sorry you’re having trouble with…the garage. That must be frustrating for you.

Explaining the Problem:

Representative: So, you’re upset because the toaster over just stops working?

Customer: Of course I am! Sometimes I give it a gentle smack and it starts working again, but that only lasts for a few minutes.

Husband: So you’re upset because I just stop working?

Wife: Of course I am! Sometimes I give you a gentle smack and you start working again, but that only lasts for a few minutes.

Expressing Our Feelings:

Customer: I get so angry I can’t help yelling. It’s infuriating to watch it shut down, sit there and do nothing. It’s useless! Just useless!!

Representative: I’m sorry but I’m going to have to ask you to lower your voice.

Customer: Don’t tell me to lower my voice…hello…? Did you just hang up on me? Hello!!

Wife: I get so angry I can’t help yelling. It’s infuriating to watch you shut down, sit there and do nothing. You’re useless! Just useless!!

Husband: I’m sorry but I’m going to have to ask you to lower your voice.

Wife: Don’t tell me to lower my voice…hello…? Did you just walk away from me? Hello!!

Of course, there are ways to avoid these kinds of outcomes by learning effective complaint skills (and for those on the customer service side of things) effective complaint management skills. Thankfully, The Squeaky Wheel is now in paperback (and eBook), which means that for about $10 the secrets of our complaining psychology can be at your fingertips. You could learn how to complain effectively to companies, colleagues, friends, and loved ones…or you could just clean the garage yourself…

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Sh*t Customer Service Representatives Say

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

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

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

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

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

2. Carmel Car and Limo:

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

The 5 Most Read Customer Service Articles of 2011

Five articles were read by more readers of this blog than any of the other thirty-something I posted in 2011. Following are the articles, their intros and my thoughts about why they might have been so popular. Also, my thoughts on why the least read article of the year was so…unread. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments section. The Squeaky Wheel Blog’s Most Read Articles of 2011:

1. The Heavy Metal Price of Bad Customer Service

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

My Thoughts: This case study was mentioned in at least one high-level Cisco conference as well as a marketing Key Note Address. Mike (whom I’ve never met) wrote a great song, thousands of Youtube views and even a good response (eventually) from Cisco. It’s a happy story all around.

2. Learning Customer Service from the Visually Impaired

“You are about to enter a different kind of darkness—a darkness so pitch black, you will not be able to see a thing. Place your hands on the shoulders of the person in front of you. We will walk slowly. Ready? Now, follow me, I will show you to your table.” So began one of the most interesting and memorable dining experiences I’ve ever had.

My Thoughts: I’m in the dark about why this post did so well (Thank you, I’ll be here all week!). If I had to guess it was because the idea of dining in total darkness has very broad appeal.

3. My Letter to Tony Hsieh

I’ve heard numerous stories about CEOs who are reputed to read every email they receive and have generally taken such claims with a grain of salt (if not many, many grains). But a recent experience with Zappos customer service left a sufficient impression on me that I felt moved to chuck all skepticism aside and write a personal email to Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO and author of Delivering Happiness. Here is the letter I wrote.

My Thoughts: Who knew that my efforts to get the CEO of Zappos to read my book would turn out to be so popular? Although to be honest, its popularity was probably due to the popularity of Tony Hsieh.

4. Does Your Company Know How to Apologize Correctly?

Most customer service representatives are trained to voice apologies when handling complaint calls but they are rarely trained to do so correctly.

My Thoughts: This post did so well it was even adopted as a White Paper by the good folks at Stella Service (.com). It still amazes me that companies regularly botch something as basic as an apology, but yet those that don’t are still exceedingly rare.

5. The Psychology of Customer Loyalty

Loyal customers are those who feel a strongly held commitment to re-buy or re-patronize a specific product, service or company. They are considered a company’s biggest asset as besides providing repeat business, loyal customers spread positive word of mouth that can be up to twenty times more powerful than regular advertising.

My Thoughts: Here again, it’s shocking how often C level management in large companies ignore basic information about customer loyalty, especially as it pertains to complaint handling.

Least Read Article of 2011:

My Session in the Recording Studio

Last weekend I spent 14 hours in a recording studio taping the audio-book for The Squeaky Wheel. It was my first visit to a recording studio of any kind and as might be expected I was nervous. “You’ll be recording in that booth,” the director said, pointing toward a glass window through which I could make out a broom-closet sized room with a small desk, chair and a microphone. “Won’t the back-up singers feel cramped in there?” I asked jokingly. The director didn’t respond. I turned and saw she already had her earphones on and was busy flipping switches. I decided to ditch my ‘Let’s take it once more from the chorus!” joke I was saving for later.

My Thoughts: Okay, I thought my description of recording the audio version of The Squeaky Wheel was both funny and charming. Readers apparently did not. Most people hope to learn something new when they read a blog and yes, it’s possible my struggle not to burp after taking a lunch break was not sufficiently informative.

Please visit again as there are many more articles to come in 2012!

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Which Emotion Most Drives Customer Hostility?

Two customers with the same exact complaint contact customer service representatives to voice their dissatisfactions. One of them expresses their problem calmly and with civility while the other, with the exact same complaint, explodes in hostility and aggression. This rather common situation raises 3 questions: 1. What is it that accounts for the huge difference in the two customers’ complaining behavior?

2. How should customer service representatives respond differently to each of these customers?

3. Can management mitigate the impact of hostile customers on frontline employees?

A new study in the Journal of Service Management examined the different emotions we bring to complaining situations such as rage, regret, and anxiety. They found that one emotion was more prominent in fueling customer hostility than all others—frustration.

Customers who experienced high frustration tended to bring a significant amount of hostility and aggression to their interactions with customer service representatives, making them extremely emotionally challenging for the frontline representatives laboring to assist them.

In my book The Squeaky Wheel, I discuss the various ways in which how dealing with hostile customers negatively impacts the productivity and mental health of customer service and call center employees. I also discuss and give examples of the steps companies can take to mitigate these effects, as well as the managerial models that have been proven effective in doing so. Therefore, understanding that frustration is often the main driver of customer hostility means that customer service practices need to be adapted to consider the following guidelines for dealing with hostile complaints:

1. The only way to attain a satisfactory service recovery in such situations is to first manage (and reduce) the customer’s hostility—otherwise the hostile complaining behavior will persist or even increase (see my article: The Antidote to Anger and Frustration).

2. Customer service representatives must therefore postpone entering into a discussion about potential remedies and solutions to the problem and allow the customer to fully explain their frustration and the situation creating it.

3. Representatives must then offer customers both an apology (see my article: Does Your Company Know How to Apologize Effectively?) and display empathy (see my article: How to test Your Empathy).

4. Customers who feel their emotions were understood and validated will immediately feel less frustrated and be more open to service recovery efforts (watch short video: How to Apologize to Customers).

5. Frontline employees must manage significant amounts of stress when performing service recoveries in this way. To continue functioning at the highest levels they will need their own support and empathy from their managers and supervisors.

CONCLUSION: In order to perform effective service recoveries and sustain a productive staff, both frontline employees and their supervisors/managers must be trained to express support and empathy in and after encounters with highly emotional and hostile customers.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

References: Tronvoll, B. (2011). Negative Emotions and Their Effect on Customer Complaint Behaviour. Journal of Service Management, 22(1), 111‐134

10 Most Annoying Customer Service Practices

Researching and writing The Squeaky Wheel involved calling more companies than I can remember, experiencing their customer service practices and marveling at how needlessly annoying many of them were. Consequently I developed the following list of pet peeves* (some of which I elaborate upon further in the book) which here I phrased as questions to the companies themselves. Perhaps one day, these questions will be answered—but let’s just say, I’m not placing my breath on hold. Dear Customer Service Corporate Executives:

1.  Why is there no ‘back’ option for automated menus so we can correct mistakes without having to start over? Don’t you realize some of us have fat fingers?

2.  Why does every company think the only song that can sooth my frazzled nerves when I’m on hold is Dolly Parton and Kenny Roger’s Islands in the Stream? If I hear that song one more time we will definitely not “Ride it together, uh-huh!”

3.  Why does your automated message caution us to “Listen carefully because our menu options have changed”? Who are you warning exactly? How many customers do you think memorized your entire menu tree and need to be alerted you changed it?

4.  Why does the automated voice that announces “Your wait time will be two minutes” sound just as upbeat and cheerful as when it announces “Your wait time will be fifty-two minutes”? Would it kill you to tape a version that sounded slightly more apologetic?

5.  Why are American companies using posh English accents on their automated menus? Do you really think your business will come across as ‘high-end’ if the person giving me menu choices sounds like Judy Dench even though the live person I reach sounds like Judy Tenuta?

6.  Why do your automated menus tell me to enter my account number for faster service if the first thing your representative does when I finally get through is ask me for my account number?

7.  Why does your on-hold message insist that you know my time is valuable at the very moment you’re wasting it? Don’t you see how that could be perceived as passive aggressive?

8.  Why does my toaster oven have a serial number that’s more complicated than the code for the nations Nukes? Surely there’s a simpler way for me to describe my product than reading a string of characters and symbols that look like they could open a Stargate.

9.  Why is it so hard for you to distinguish between first and last names? Am I supposed to feel confident about your ability to handle my problem when the first thing I hear is, “Yes, Mr. Guy. Can I call you Winch?”

10. Why do you instruct your representatives to end a call saying, “I hope I’ve been able to answer all your questions” even if they haven’t answered any of them? Don’t you realize you’re just making it awkward for both of us?

*Further inspiration provided by Kate Nasser, Greg Levin and Write the Company.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

The Psychology of Customer Loyalty

Loyal customers are those who feel a strongly held commitment to re-buy or re-patronize a specific product, service or company. They are considered a company’s biggest asset as besides providing repeat business, loyal customers spread positive word of mouth that can be up to twenty times more powerful than regular advertising. Loyal customers might be highly coveted but they are also hard to come by. Many companies attempt to improve customer loyalty by offering reward programs and other such incentives or by focusing on enhancing the customer experience. But while reward programs might increase repurchasing motivation in the short term but they cease to do so as soon as the program ends because they do little to change how customers feel about the company.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

You might also like:

Are Consumers Paying More Attention to Customer Service?

Does Your Company Know How to Apologize Effectively?

My Letter to Tony Hsieh  

Does Your Company Know How to Apologize Effectively?

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

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

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

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

What Science Discovered about Effective Apologies

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

(A) Expressions of empathy

(B) Adequate offers of compensation

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

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

How Customer Service Representatives Should Apologize

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

(A) Doing so too soon.

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

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

Effective apologies must adhere to the following principles:

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

Copyright 2010 Guy Winch Ph.D.

References:

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

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

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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