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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2010 Guy Winch