The Squeaky Wheel and the Real Estate (Ka)Boom

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Customer Service at the London Olympics

This summer hundreds of thousands of people will flock to London for the Olympics and Paralympics games and I will be among them. Aside from my eagerness to attend the specific sporting events for which I purchased tickets I am also excited to experience what I hope will be Olympic sized customer service at the various Olympic venues. At least I was excited until I saw an article from The Telegraph with the title UK will struggle to win gold in customer service during the London Olympics”. The London Olympics have already announced that venues will have very stringent security measures (“airport-like bags and body screenings”). Since such screenings are both fair and necessary I will not be judging them on their ability to perform a pat-down or on the long lines such measures will entail. A pre-pat-down smile would be nice but we don't have to cuddle after.

Once I pass security and enter the venue though, my expectations will be far higher. Tickets to the games are expensive and spectators typically travel a great distance to attend. Therefore, I do expect the ushers and sales employees at the Olympic stadium to display smiles, patience, helpfulness, and graciousness. I will report on my experiences during the second week of the games.

Perhaps The Telegraph is right and London will not win a gold medal in customer service but I certainly hope they shoot for silver or bronze. It would be a shame if the U.K. spent billions of dollars to host the games and messed up the customer service component. After all, excellent customer service is what every good ‘host’ should seek to provide.

If you will be attending the Olympics, please feel free to share your own experiences. See you in London!

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

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

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

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

Taco Bell and Complaints Gone Wild

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Do Taco Bell employees get danger pay?

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

5. What the hell is a Chalupa?

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

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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

The Squeaky Wheel: Reader Success Stories

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

Squeaking a Mortgage Company into Submission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Success Letters from Readers

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

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

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

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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Complaint Makeover Corner

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

Dear A.L.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They Shoot Book Trailers Don’t They?

“You need a book trailer,” my agent said one crisp fall afternoon.“What do you mean?” I asked, “A trailer like a movie trailer?” “Yes, something short.” Books had movie trailers? This was news to me. Where were these things shown? I had just been to a Barnes & Noble and no book trailers were being screened anywhere. What would a trailer for a book even look like? “Are you sure psychology books have trailers?” I inquired. “Yes!” my agent insisted. “Just do something simple but fun.” I was still having trouble wrapping my mind around this concept. “Are you sure? Do Freud’s books have trailers? Some dude trying to sleep with his mother with a deep voiceover, ‘If you read about only one complex this year, read about Oedipus!’” “You’re not Freud,” my agent reminded me. “You absolutely have to do one. I’ll email you some examples,” she said. “Don’t stress out about it.”

An hour later, I got an email with links to a couple of book trailers. I watched the first one and immediately stressed out about it (click here to view it). I called my agent right away. “Um, that’s the kind of trailer you want me to do? It has special effects! I don’t have a budget for special effects,” I sputtered. “I don’t have a budget period.” “It’s great isn’t it? I think her brother is in the film business,” my agent explained. “My brother’s in the psychology business! Every picture he takes has his fingers in the frame.” “It doesn’t have to be that elaborate, just make it fun.” By then I had gone online and checked out a few non-fiction book trailers. Most of them featured the author sitting in front of a bookcase talking about their book, often in a monotone voice. No special effects, no lighting, no hair and makeup, no production crew. It didn’t seem especially ‘fun’ but was that what my agent was expecting? “Is sitting in front of a bookcase and talking about complaining considered fun?” “No.” “How about if I sat in front of a window and spoke about complaining?” “Not fun.” “What if the window had a great view?” “No.” “What if there was a window and a bookcase?” “Nope.” “Then I’m stumped. Do you have any ideas?” “Just that it should be fun.”

It’s not that I didn’t have any ideas for a great Squeaky Wheel book trailer, I had many. But each of them would require professional crews, actors, location shoots and a ton of editing. And as eager as I was to promote my book, spending thousands of dollars on doing a video trailer was simply not a possibility.

This of course, is why the ‘bookcase’ genre of book trailers is so popular among first time non-fiction authors. I just didn’t see how I could do anything but sit in front of a bookcase, put a camera on a tripod, point it at my face and talk about complaining.

But then, a few days later, I had an idea. I made a quick call to Raquel and Arthur, two friends who were ideally suited to the task. They were both stand-up comedians, good actors and most importantly, free during a workday, as we needed natural light. We scheduled a 3 hour shoot two days later.

Other than trying to get two stand-up comics to stop goofing around so we could film an authentic argument scene, the shoot went smoothly.

We used a stills camera that shot video, no special lights, no hair or makeup, and no production crew. I shot one additional scene a week later and sat with an editor for a few hours to put it all together.

As for my part in the book trailer: I sat in front of a bookcase and spoke about complaining.

And it was fun.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch