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

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

New Study Reveals White Lies about Customer Dissatisfactions Cost Us Money

The squeaky wheel may get the grease but most of us make informed decisions about when to complain about minor customer service infractions and when to muffle our squeaks. A new study now indicates that when consumers tell white lies about customer service dissatisfactions, it often ends up costing them money. Researches Jennifer Argo and Baba Shiv wanted to examine what happens when we tell white lies to gloss over the minor dissatisfactions we encounter as consumers. Although it might seem as though no harm could come from telling a waiter our meal is fine when we don’t love it, or telling a hairdresser we like our new do when in fact we’re not thrilled with it, Argo and Shiv discovered that such is not the case.

One of the places they conducted their research was in restaurants where they surveyed both diners and servers. They found that 85% of diners admitted to telling white lies when their dining experiences were unsatisfactory (i.e., claiming all was well when it wasn’t). However the real interesting finding was that diners who told white lies to cover up their dissatisfactions were then likely to leave bigger tips than those who did not.

Why would diners who were less satisfied with their meals and who lied to their server about it leave an even bigger tip as a result? The researchers propose that cognitive dissonance was at play. Cognitive dissonance refers to situations in which our actions do not match our beliefs, creating a state of psychological and emotional discomfort. We tend to resolve cognitive dissonance by making efforts to align our actions with our beliefs by tinkering with one of them (either the action or the belief). Cognitive dissonance tends to operate unconsciously and not in a premeditated manner.

As to the current study, we all have an acceptable range of dishonesty. When our white lies fall outside that range it can trigger cognitive dissonance as we feel uncomfortable about our dishonesty. We might then try to reduce our cognitive dissonance by engaging in behaviors that actually favor the wrongdoer (as by doing so we ‘make up’ for our dishonesty). As a result, we not only tell the waiter our steak is delicious and then spit it out into our napkin as soon as their back is turned, we then tip them even more for our regurgitation.

Interestingly, 95% of the servers in the study indicated they knew when customers were lying about such things (i.e., saying the food was satisfactory when it wasn’t) and 100% of the servers (none of whom were trained psychologists) believed such lies translated into bigger tips.

In my book The Squeaky Wheel I discuss many instances and give numerous examples of the negative psychological, relationship and financial consequences we encounter by being ineffective complainers. Here is one more to add to that list—we pay more in tips when we fail to speak up about an unsatisfactory dining experience.

As readers of The Squeaky Wheel can attest, learning effective complaining skills benefits us as consumers (financially), benefits us psychologically and emotionally, and benefits our personal and workplace relationships. It also helps reduce our cognitive dissonance in situations of consumer dissatisfaction.

Of course, we could just keep spitting out our steaks into our napkins...

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Reference: Argo, J. & Shiv, B. Are White Lies as Innocuous as We Think? Journal of Consumer Research. April 2012 Vol. 38

Which Emotion Most Drives Customer Hostility?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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

10 Most Annoying Customer Service Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Customer Service for the Undead

According to recent reports, 14,000 people a year are erroneously declared dead by the Social Security Administration. CNN reported that one woman discovered the error at her bank where the manager informed her that she was deceased. He then added insult to death blow by confiscating her ATM card and cutting it in half right in front of her, clearly oblivious to the unfortunate symbolism of his gesture. The manager's utter lack of tact was dwarfed only by his greater disregard for customer service. Even if his actions were in accordance with bank regulations, his appalling lack of consideration for his customer's feelings indicates a problem with customer service that can only be described as…deadly. Given how many people join the ranks of the ‘undead’ every year, banks, other financial institutions and even governmental agencies risk terrible damage to their reputations. One can find literally thousands of reports of such incidents, every single one of which seems to feature a financial or governmental agency displaying a complete lack of regard for the feelings (and mental health) of the customer or tax-payers in question. I came across virtually no accounts of bank managers or government agency representatives conveying compassion or understanding in these situations, or offering assistance and guidance in how the 'undead' in question can officially reanimate themselves.

While some victims’ initial response was to think the error quite hilarious, the thigh-slapping and giggles ceased rather quickly once the implications became clear. The Inspector General admits the biggest problem facing the ‘walking dead’ is that, “Erroneous death entries can lead to benefit termination and cause severe financial hardship and distress.” Further, being reanimated, at least bureaucratically, can take weeks and months of paperwork and appointments. In the meantime, the person faces not just financial hardships but the risk of identity theft as well.

The Undead Represent the Perfect Complaint Handling Opportunity

Banks, financial institutions and governmental agencies could easily turn these living-dead-people into their biggest fans and capitalize on the marketing and branding opportunities they present. All it would take to do so is to demonstrate basic care for their customers (or the tax payers who fund their agencies). For example, they could easily distribute customer service guidelines to their employees so they can better handle the situation when a dead customer walks in and stubbornly insists they are still alive. Specifically:

1. Instruct employees to handle ‘not-so-dead’ customers with both care and compassion.

2. Never argue with a customer about whether or not they are dead, especailly if they strongly feel otherwise.

3. Instruct employees to explain the error and its implications to the customer, state the banks limitations (e.g., “We’re so sorry but we are obliged to take your ATM card. However, don’t worry, we’ll issue you a new card as soon as the error is rectified and we’ll work with you to see if there’s anything we can do for you in the meantime.”)

4. Have available guidelines to give customers so they know how to remedy the situation. For example, the Identity Theft Resource Center recommends finding out who reported you as dead, getting a copy of the death certificate from the county clerk's or recorder's office where the death was reported, and filling out a form to amend the certificate. Then making an appointment at your local Social Security office to which you bring a photo ID and the certified copy of the amended death certificate.

5. Follow up with customers so they can be entered back into the system as soon as possible.

Following these steps would do much to mitigate the customer-service damage the bank or institution sustains. Instead of undead customers spreading negative word of mouth about how terribly the bank handled the situation (these days, stories about undead people spread like wildfire), they would let everyone they know how compassionate and caring their bank was and how lovely it was of them to follow-up with a phone to inquire about their efforts at bureaucratic ‘resurrection’.

Let’s be honest, when something this 'juicy' happens, everyone talks about it. By treating customers with compassion and offering them guidance and assistance, banks, financial institutions and local agencies could turn customer service death sentences into customers for life.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

You might also like Customer Service Blacklists: Throwing Out the Granny with the Bathwater

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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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. All the waiters in the Jaffa Blackout Restaurant are visually impaired. The pitch black conditions I experienced for a few hours, the inability to see even my own finger in front of my face (I tried wagging my finger and smacked myself on the nose), was no novelty for our waitress but a basic fact of daily life. Indeed, the Blackout Restaurant has dual purposes.

Removing our sense of sight heightens our senses of taste, touch, and smell and it allows us to experience food in an entirely different way. But more importantly, the total darkness allows us to experience for a short while, what it is like to be totally blind. The experience gives diners empathy for the visually impaired as well as surprising insight about how they feel and think.

Other “eating in the dark” experiences use blindfolds and low lighting, which is drastically different than the experience of complete darkness. Some have non-visually impaired waiters who use infrared goggles to navigate their way around. Both those options might focus the diner on the non-visual aspects of their meal but they offer little in the way of empathy and insight.

What made my experience at the Jaffa Blackout Restaurant even more personally educational was that several things went wrong during the meal; a circumstance that brought attention to another element of this unique dining experience—the amazing service.

After being seated we were told there was a pitcher of water at the far end of the table. We each had an empty glass. But how to know when to stop pouring before water spills over the top? I had the brilliant idea of putting my finger in the glass as I poured so I could stop once the water touched my fingertip. I proudly announced my solution to the waitress. “Um…actually it’s easier to just pour half a glass.” She was polite enough not to mention it was more sanitary as well, but I got the message.

One of my companions immediately tried the “half glass” technique which would have worked better had she remembered to make sure the pitcher made contact with the glass. As it was, she promptly poured a half-glass of water right onto the table. Our waitress was hovering nearby and was over with towels and a fresh pitcher of water before we knew it.

Another unique aspect of the service was that everything has to be communicated to diners in far more detail than usual. “Please sit back, I will be serving from your right. I’m placing a medium sized plate in front of you. Don’t worry about food ending up on the table, it will. We clean the table between each course. If you drop a knife or fork, don’t try to find them on the floor, just let me know and we’ll bring you another.”

Between the four people in my party, we dropped knives and forks three times (sleeves can brush a utensil off the table rather easily—and yes, we eventually did roll up our sleeves). Although we felt a little abashed by our multiple utensil droppings, our waitress convincingly conveyed true reassurance when saying, “It’s really no problem, it happens all the time,” by using an especially sweet tone of voice (as she could not rely on facial expressions).

We also realized we would have to pay close attention when we put down a utensil or a glass so we remembered where we placed it. ‘Fishing around’ for such things invites drops or spills. It had not occurred to me that being unable to see required from the person a substantial use of short-term spatial memory. It was a fascinating insight into the kinds of basic challenges visually impaired people contend with.

Our waitress checked in on us repeatedly to see if we needed anything or if anyone needed to be escorted outside for a restroom break (thankfully, the restroom had dim light—some spills diners can do without). When I asked to visit the restroom a waiter who was still training was assigned to lead me out. I put my hands on his shoulders. He took a few steps and hesitated. He turned and bumped into a table. He turned again, took two steps and bumped into another one.

“I’m so very sorry but I think I’m a little lost,” he admitted. He rang a little bell (every waiter carries one with them). Moments later our waitress joined us and guided us out. The waiter-in-training apologized to me again and promptly promised to send a round of drinks to the table.

The last mishap was that our deserts were delayed. Interestingly enough, we had no idea that was the case. No watches are allowed in the restaurant (they can emit light) and people typically lose sense of time in complete darkness. Our waitress came over and told us the time, “The kitchen is a little delayed tonight. If you have to leave to get back home to a babysitter or something, we can pack your deserts for you and of course, we won’t charge you for them.” Happily, we were able to stay and enjoy our deserts and the experience in its entirety.

I left the Blackout Restaurant feeling schooled in many ways. I had expanded my understanding and appreciation for the tactile and multi-sensory experience good food can and should provide. I had gained numerous insights into the challenges the visually impaired face on a daily basis as well as empathy for how disciplined and focused they must be when performing simple tasks others take for granted.

But most importantly, our waitress made us feel cared in a profound way the likes of which we had not encountered in any other dining experience. Her command of the environment and outstanding communication skills allowed her to assume a role greater than mere waitress--for a few hours she was our leader and guide. The Blackout Restaurant was the last place I expected to learn about leadership or customer service and the lesson—was truly an eye-opener.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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Finding Customer Service Solutions within Customer Complaints

The Heavy (Metal) Price of Bad Customer Service

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

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

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

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

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

The Mistakes Cisco Made in Complaint Management:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Consequences of Cisco’s Poor Customer Service Efforts

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

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

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

The Moral of Customer Service Stories like Mike’s.

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

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

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

Cisco Sucks! by Mike Soltis on YouTube

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

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

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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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).

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The Burrito (Manager) Who Could Not Say 'Sorry'

Writing The Squeaky Wheel involved lots of research, a good portion of which was done in libraries and online but some of which involved my personal experiences as a consumer. To that end, I decided to pursue even small complaints and dissatisfactions whenever they arose, both to assess complaint handling and customer service practices, and to experience first-hand the impact of different customer service strategies on my own mood, customer satisfaction levels and customer loyalty. While the decision seemed sound at the time, it often compelled me to complain about the kinds of trivial matters I would never have pursued ordinarily. I urge readers to keep that in mind when reading the following account of my call to the manager of a burrito joint near my office where I often stopped by to pick up a quick lunch. The conversation went roughly as follows:

“Hello may I speak to the manager?” “Speaking.” “Hi. I’m a regular customer of yours. Yesterday lunchtime I purchased a burrito and handed my loyalty card to the person behind the register. He said the card had not yet been activated and had no points on it. I’ve been using my loyalty card regularly, so I knew that wasn’t possible. I said this to them and they insisted I could not have used the card regularly because it had never been activated. It’s possible he swapped my card with another by mistake as there was a mess of cards around the register, in which case we were both right. But regardless, I do not like being called a liar. As the manager, I thought you should know what happened as I’m a little annoyed about it and like I said, I am and would like to remain a regular customer.” “Yes, that’s me,” he responded. I was confused. “Yes, you’re the manager?” “Yes, I’m the person you spoke to yesterday.” “Oh, you were the person behind the register?” “Yes. And your card had never been activated.” “Wait. And you’re also the store manager?” “Yes.” “You’re the store manager and you were willing to risk losing a regular customer?” “The card had not been activated.” “You know what, let’s say it hadn’t. Let’s say I invented the entire story just to get a free burrito. You’ve seen me in the store before, right?” “Yes.” “And so you knew I was a regular customer.” “Yes.” “Do you know, it is five times more expensive to acquire new customers than it is to hold on to existing ones by good complaint handling?” “No, I didn’t know that.” “Well, now you do. Did you know that when a complaint is handled correctly, customers become even more loyal to the store than they were before they had a problem?” “No, I didn’t know that. Is that for real?” “Absolutely, I’m writing a book on the topic.” “Oh….” “Don’t worry it’s not an expose about burritos.” “Um, okay.” “But the facts I mentioned are totally true.” “Oh.” The man was quiet for a moment. Then, “Um, I guess the customer is always right.” “Yes, that’s the general rule.” “Huh.” Again he thought for a moment. “Look, I’m sorry about yesterday, dude.” “That’s nice of you to say.” “I should have handled things differently, for sure.” “I’m feeling better already.” “I really do apologize.” “I really do appreciate it.” “And I’d like to give you a free burrito next time you come in.” “My work here is done.” The manager laughed, we exchanged names and ended the call.

The next time I saw him in the store was a week later. Standing next to him was his regional manager. The store manager waved hello to me with a big smile, “Hey Guy!” He then turned to his regional manager and announced with a sheepish grin, “That’s the guy I was an asshole to last week!” The regional manager, all smiles himself, shook my hand and thanked me for conveying the information about complaint handling (which apparently the store manager had passed along). He then gave me a free burrito and asked if I would fill out a customer satisfaction survey. I did so gladly. While my assessment of their food remained the same, my comments about their customer service and especially the efforts of the manager, were very positive indeed.

Service recoveries, when done correctly, can be one of the most powerful tools businesses have for creating customer loyalty and spreading positive word-of-mouth. Sadly, it is a tool far too many businesses neglect to use. However, it is also one that effective squeaky wheels everywhere could impart to their neighborhood businesses and communities themselves, as I did with the burrito shop. Not every manager will be open to such suggestions but some certainly will, especially if you do so calmly and respectfully. So the next time you encounter a service failure from a local business, teach them a squeaky wheel lesson or two—they might thank you for it in the end.

Copyright 2010 Guy Winch