My Experience of Customer Service at the London Olympics

I recently wrote about the Psychological Impact of the Olympic Games and argued that coverage of the Games should emphasize the world uniting in athletic competition as opposed to emphasizing scandals and complaints (such as the media frenzy that erupted about Team USA's uniforms being manufactured in China). The Olympic Games are a unique and inspirational event and this report on the customer service offered to spectators is in no way intended to take away from their meaning and significance. Articles began appearing in the British press months ago questioning London's ability to provide an excellent customer experience at the venues. As a result, my expectations about their customer service were not exceedingly high. I braced myself for long lines at security points and for stressed and harried staff.

I'm happy to report, I braced for naught.

Customer Service in the Olympic Park

As soon as we emerged from the train we were greeted by smiling and friendly volunteers. Their upbeat and positive presence and cheerful willingness to answer any questions made it easy to get to the Olympic Park and find our way once we were inside the park itself. Getting past the security points took all of five minutes and here too the security staff and volunteers were helpful and friendly.

The signage  around London made it easy to get to all the venues. The signage within the park was well placed and included estimates of the number of minutes it would take to reach each venue from the current locale. The food offerings were varied and the eating facilities and bathrooms were clean and regularly maintained. The shops were mobbed but you wouldn't know it from the calm and patient attitude of the staff who remained pleasant and helpful despite the capacity crowds. Even the checkout was efficient and pleasant. In short, every single employee and staff member I saw (and I saw dozens) was friendly, cheerful, and excited.

Customer Service in the Olympic Stadium

Impressed as I was so far, I knew the real test of customer service would come at the end of the sessions (we attended two, a day and night session) when eighty thousand people left the stadium and tens of thousands more exited the other venues around the park. The London Olympic team passed this test too with flying colors. The stadium emptied very quickly and volunteers lined the long route to the train, waving, smiling, and even singing and dancing at times. Their energy and friendliness was remarkable and did not waver.

All in all, Great Britain earns a gold medal for their Olympic customer service and the customer experience they provided. They put on a terrific and efficient Olympics and provided great customer service combined with a terrific customer experience. Along with their successful and impressive medal haul, they have much to be proud of.

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Customer Service on the Titanic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

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

Picture Perfect Complaints

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

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

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

Make eye contact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The image they used to convey these positive expressions:

The Toronto Sun summed it all up nicely:

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

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

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

In my defense, I thought the picture was hilarious.

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

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

How To Complain Without Triggering Defensiveness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

What Marital and Customer Service Complaints Have in Common

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

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

Stating the Complaint:

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

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

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

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

Explaining the Problem:

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

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

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

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

Expressing Our Feelings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

The 5 Most Read Customer Service Articles of 2011

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

1. The Heavy Metal Price of Bad Customer Service

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

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

2. Learning Customer Service from the Visually Impaired

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

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

3. My Letter to Tony Hsieh

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

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

4. Does Your Company Know How to Apologize Correctly?

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

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

5. The Psychology of Customer Loyalty

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

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

Least Read Article of 2011:

My Session in the Recording Studio

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

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

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

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Customer Service Hitting All-Time Lows as Holiday Shopping Begins

A recent survey in the UK found that consumers were more dissatisfied with customer service than ever before. Findings indicated that 75% of consumers felt customer service standards were at an all-time low and 62% expressed feeling no loyalty to retailers or service providers because they felt under-valued as customers. Rising Anger and Frustration

Customers expressed both anger and frustration about the state of customer service. Over 65% believe retailers, leisure providers and service providers are arrogant and that they make no effort to understand their customers. Over 50% of UK consumers surveyed thought businesses should actually be fined for consistent poor service (i.e., they feel customer attrition alone is insufficient).

Complaint Management and Mismanagement

When it comes to voicing complaints, 80% of customers stated they would like immediate reassurance from companies as well as evidence their complaints will be taken seriously and resolved to their satisfaction. Indeed, over half those surveyed stated they voiced complaints for the first time, implying their patience with bad customer service practices has worn thin.

Here in the USA Customer Service in the third quarter actually showed a slight decline from last year, not a promising sign as the holiday shopping season is now in full bloom.

Customers and Companies Must Both Change

As I’ve written before (Complaint Handling: Where Customers and Companies Both Fail), customers and companies must both take responsibility for the deficient state of customer service. Companies must pay more attention to customer’s complaints and dissatisfactions and learn how to handle them with excellence as doing do increases customer loyalty (read how here). On the other hand, consumers must learn how to complain effectively and make efforts to address their concerns to the companies directly, rather than just telling their friends about how annoyed they are and defecting to the competition without giving the company a chance to make things right.

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

New Study Reveals White Lies about Customer Dissatisfactions Cost Us Money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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

Is Excessive Homework in Private Schools a Customer Service Issue?

The average private school tuition is over ten thousand dollars a year (and in many large cities it is often three times that amount). Do the customers of these schools, the children who attend them and the parents who pay for them, have the same rights other customers do? In recent years, one of the areas in which this question has received most attention is the fiercely contested battle over homework. Children in private schools often have several hours of homework a night by the time they reach middle school. This often requires them to study ten to twelve hours a day with virtually no time to relax, play, or socialize with their friends during the week. It often robs them of much of their weekend as well.

This kind of work load is no small matter. If we imagined children spending twelve hours a day hunched over a sewing machine rather than a desk, we would be appalled. Indeed, play, is a crucial component of healthy child development. It affects children’s creativity, their social skills, and even their brain development.

The absence of play, physical exercise, and free-form social interaction takes a serious toll on many children. It can also have significant health implications as is evidenced by our current epidemic of childhood obesity, sleep deprivation, low self- esteem, and depression.

Experts in education recommend children have no more than ten minutes of homework per day per grade level. The average seventh grader should have no more than an hour and ten minutes a day of homework (instead of three times that amount). Having an extra two hours an evening to play, relax, or see a friend would obviously constitute a huge bump in any child’s quality of life.

The question is do parents who pay huge amounts of money to send their children to private schools have the same right to make customer complaints as the customers of any other business would? And do private schools treat complaints from their ‘customers’ as any business would (or should)?

Parents in the know have been fighting the homework battle for some years now and where private schools are concerned, with some measure of success. Speaking up and educating the school about homework research often has an impact on getting teachers to reduce the amount of homework they give (especially in younger grades). Parents of older children are advised to get become educated about homework research (you can find resources here) and to address the issue as a group. By doing so, they are far more likely to get a response from the school because they represent not just a group of parents but a group of customers as well.

What do you think? Do parents of children in private schools have the same rights as other customers do?

You might also like: How Much Homework is Too Much?

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

How South Africa Turned Oscar Pistorius’ Win into a Marketing Loss

[UPDATE: I was shocked to learn Oscar was charged with murdering his girlfriend on Feb 14, 2013. My thoughts are with both families as well as with Oscar's fans around the world] The Olympics and World Championships are considered the most prestigious of all sporting events as athletes compete not just for themselves but to honor their countries. As such, Olympic and World Championship competitions provide incredible marketing opportunities for countries as much as they do sporting opportunities for individual athletes.

When Jesse Owens dominated the sprints at the 1936 Munich Olympics in Germany, the sight of a black man winning so decisively created a significant setback for Hitler’s efforts to use the games to ‘market’ his message of Arian superiority. Indeed, the achievements of an individual athlete can often bring huge attention to their countries and represent a national marketing opportunity of immense proportions.

When an athlete achieves something extraordinary, as did Jesse Owens, one would expect their home country to embrace them and take full advantage of the marketing opportunity their athletic achievements present. But as South Africa demonstrated last week during the Track and Field World Championships in South Korea, such is not always the case.

Oscar Pistorius is a South African sprinter who specializes in the 400 meters. He is not ranked among the top ten in the world, nor has he set any world records. However, his appearance in the world championships was significant for another reason entirely—Pistorius is a double amputee (he runs on synthetic legs called ‘blades’) and the first Paralympian to compete against able bodied athletes in a world championship.

Merely qualifying for his event by reaching the Olympic A standard was an achievement in itself but Pistorius then did the unthinkable. He actually advanced all the way to the semi-finals, becoming a worldwide sensation in the process. Watching Pistorius run his heat against able bodied athletes and advance to the semis was a goose-bump inducing experience for millions around the world. Pistorius’ rugged good looks, his devotion to his sport, his ambition and shy modesty caused internet message boards and social media sites to flood with emotional messages of congratulations and support.

Pistorius did not make it to the final in the individual 400 meters race but he still had the 4x400 relay, where teams from each country compete for national as opposed to individual honor. In the qualifying heats of the relay, Oscar Pistorius led off the first leg for the South African team and not only broke their national team record in the process but ended up qualifying for the finals in third place!

Suddenly, there was a realistic chance Oscar Pistorius could find himself climbing the podium to receive a medal—an event that for millions around the world would symbolize something far greater than mere athletic achievement.

The site of a double amputee bending forward to have a world championship medal placed around his neck would be one of the most moving and inspirational moments in the history of sports. It would be something people with disabilities all over the world could look to as a moment of ultimate acceptance and equality, an image that would inspire for years to come.

And for South Africa, who is still emerging from a history of Apartheid and blatant inequality, Pistorius on the podium would depict a tableau of progress and fairness that would represent a marketing opportunity of historic significance.

The morning of the finals, Pistorius awoke with excitement and anticipation. But then, the second unthinkable event of his championships occurred—the South African team decided to replace Pistorius with another runner in the finals. If the team got a medal, Pistorius would receive one as well (because he ran in the heats) but he would not be on the podium. There would be no ‘moment’, no ceremony to inspire and to motivate, no public recognition that he had achieved the extraordinary.

Pistorius took the news hard. "Pretty Gutted" he tweeted to his fans before the race. His fans took the news even harder, especially because the decision seemed impossible to understand. Pistorius is the second fastest runner on the team, the time he and his team put up in the heats ended up being faster than the time the team ran without him in the final. In fact, the time Pistorius and his team ran in the heats would have won the gold medal had they replicated it in the finals. As Oto Bolden, a track star and commentator put it, "Someone on the South African Federation clearly had it in for Oscar Pistorius."

The South African team ended up winning the Silver medal. Pistorius did receive a medal for his efforts, but not publically, not in a way anyone saw and could cherish, not in a way that could inspire millions and bring true honor and glory to South Africa.

Cutting Pistorius turned what could have been a unique and unprecedented marketing opportunity for South Africa into a debacle that attracted worldwide frustration and criticism. People with disabilities deal with discrimination throughout their lives, they shouldn't have to deal with it within their own team and from their own country.

The Olympics are less than a year away and there is still time for South Africa to do damage control. An athlete with the character, determination, integrity and bravery of Oscar Pistorius comes along once a generation. He is the kind of asset any country should embrace fully and without reservation. Oscar Pistorius would have made Jesse Owens proud. Perhaps South Africa should once again turn to a black man to show them the way.

Copyright 2010 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

You might also like: Learning Customer Service from the Visually Impaired

Customer Service for the Undead

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

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

The Undead Represent the Perfect Complaint Handling Opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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

Should We Expect Customer Service at the Doctor’s Office?

Many of the pharmaceutical commercials we see on television end with the line “Talk to your doctor about (the medication in question)”, as if doctors would welcome such leisurely chats and were eager to hear our thoughts and ideas about treatment options. In reality, few doctors’ offices are renowned for their customer service. Waiting Room Blues

Today many of us are spending hours in waiting areas and treatment rooms for what amounts to only a few precious minutes of face time with our doctor, even after having waited months for an appointment. Complaints about our doctors’ bedside manners (or ‘examination-table manners’) are also extremely common. Yet very few of us feel comfortable voicing complaints about such matters, in part because it’s not easy to feel especially assertive while wearing nothing but a paper gown with all the structural integrity of wet toilet paper. Let's be honest, we’re complaining to someone who has the power to stick us with needles, or worse…fingers!

Even if we wanted to, few of us know how to complain effectively in such situations. So, here’s what you need to know:

Complain to the Correct Person

Those of us who do voice our objections to spending hours in a waiting room typically do so to the nurse or receptionist in the waiting area (much as we tend to complain to the host at a restaurant instead of to the manager). Even our doctor might not have the necessary authority to make procedural changes to how the medical practice operates. We should address our complaints to the head physician of the group, the office manager at the clinic, or the patient-relations officer at the hospital or president of the hospital.

A Medical Practice is a Business—Customers Have Power

Although we might think our complaint will not have an impact, the opposite is true. Clinics and hospitals are businesses as any other and we are their customers. Further, the long-term nature of most patient-physician relationships makes us extremely loyal customers, as we often see the same doctor for years. Loyal customers are the backbone of every business and as such we have more clout than we realize.

Put Your Complaint in Writing

Written complaints are more effective than verbal ones because they provide documentation a physician or clinic manager can share with other decision makers. Make your letter as factual and as non-emotional as possible. Remember to be reasonable. We can state that while we understand emergencies happen and doctors can run long with a given patient, we would like to be informed in a timely manner if that is the case. We can also state that if such delays happen regularly, we will have to consider transferring to another clinic or physician who has more consideration for our time.

Recruit Two Other Patients to Complain With You

Most administrators and decision makers are aware the vast majority of patients do not speak up when they are dissatisfied about issues such as waiting times, doctors’ bedside manners, or the necessity of certain procedures. If they were to receive three or more complaints about the same issue from different patients, they are likely to assume the same concern is shared by even more patients who simply haven’t voiced them. Therefore, three complaints are often sufficient to spur a clinic or practice to reexamine their procedures and address a specific problem.

The next time you find yourself waiting too long for your doctor, look around the waiting room. It shouldn’t be hard to find another patient who would be willing to write a letter if you told them how to complain effectively. Get the name of the head physician or office manager, share it with your complaining partner and banish those waiting room blues.

Does your doctor have good customer service? Leave us a comment with your thoughts. I promise it won’t hurt…

UPDATE: Here's an example of the right attitude in this article by Dr. Henry Pinkney. I'm not saying Dr. Pinkney read my blog post (mostly because...he didn't) but he 'gets it' nonetheless.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

What I Learned about Corporate Culture by Speaking at Google

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

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

The First Lesson I Learned at Google

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

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

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

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

The Second Lesson I Learned at Google

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

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

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

The Third Lesson I Learned at Google

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

My Year as a Chronic Complainer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The chronic complaining slope is a slippery one indeed.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Are You a Kind Person? Take the Test to Find Out

Most of us would like to consider ourselves kind, but are we? One of the situations in which we find it most challenging to maintain kindness is when voicing complaints to customer service representatives. Kindness is easy when we’re playing with children or puppies, or helping an octogenarian blow out candles on their birthday cake so their dentures don’t land in the icing. The real test of kindness comes in situations involving frustration and irritation and when it comes to those, customer service calls are often at the top of our list.

How kind do you tend to be when calling a customer service hotline to complain?

When calling a customer service hotline have you ever done the following?

1. Raised your voice?

Never              Rarely              Only When They Deserve It   

0                      1                                           2

2. Used profanity?

Never              Rarely             Only When They Deserve It

0                      1                                           2

3. Used insults or putdowns?

Never              Rarely             Only When They Deserve It

0                      2                                           3

4. Used disparaging non-verbal communications such as sighs, snorts, ach’s or ech’s?

Never              Rarely             Only When They Deserve It

0                      1                                           2

5. Used laughter or sarcasm to convey your disgust?

Never              Rarely             Only When They Deserve It

0                      1                                           2

6. Hung up on the representative?

Never              Rarely             Only When They Deserve It

0                      1                                           2

7. Threatened the representative in any way?

Never              Rarely             Only When They Deserve It

0                      3                                           4

8. Imitated the representative’s accent when telling your friends about the call?

Never              Rarely             Only When They Deserve It

0                      2                                           3

SCORING: *

0 – 5: Let me guess, you’re a cookie-baker, aren’t you? Cookies aside, you are truly a kind person, endowed with patience, understanding and good-will. If you make your case well, these qualities should also make you an effective complainer in customer service situations as representatives are more likely to help those who treat them with kindness and respect.

6 – 12: You are in the ‘ish’ category—you are kind’ish or kinda kind if you prefer. In other words, you have the capacity to be kind but you don’t always choose to use it. You might be letting your temper get the best of you in frustrating situations. When it comes to complaining effectively to companies and getting the result you want, you should consider doing that which is effective (using kindness and respect) as opposed to venting your emotions unproductively.

13 – 20: Yikes! Have you considered anger management? Certainly customer service calls can be frustrating but one thing is for sure, the person answering the call is not responsible for your problem. They are only there to help you and they can only do so within the limited constraints of their authority. Anger rarely makes our complaints more effective and after all, you would prefer to get a satisfying result, no?

Watch my talk: How Our Complaining Psychology Affects Our Lives and Relationships--Here (It's actually funny and engaging...).

* This test is not scientific and is meant for entertainment and thought provoking purposes only.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @Guy Winch

Venting versus Complaining on Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @Guy Winch

Comparing (Rotten) Apples and (Sunny) Oranges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

The Squeaky Wheel: Reader Success Stories

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

Squeaking a Mortgage Company into Submission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Success Letters from Readers

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

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

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

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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