Picture Perfect Complaints

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

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

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

Make eye contact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The image they used to convey these positive expressions:

The Toronto Sun summed it all up nicely:

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

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

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

In my defense, I thought the picture was hilarious.

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

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

What Marital and Customer Service Complaints Have in Common

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

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

Stating the Complaint:

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

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

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

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

Explaining the Problem:

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

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

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

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

Expressing Our Feelings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Sh*t Customer Service Representatives Say

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

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

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

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

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

2. Carmel Car and Limo:

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

The 5 Most Read Customer Service Articles of 2011

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

1. The Heavy Metal Price of Bad Customer Service

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

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

2. Learning Customer Service from the Visually Impaired

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

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

3. My Letter to Tony Hsieh

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

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

4. Does Your Company Know How to Apologize Correctly?

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

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

5. The Psychology of Customer Loyalty

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

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

Least Read Article of 2011:

My Session in the Recording Studio

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

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

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

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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

The True Meaning of Customer Service Week

Customer Service Week arrives every first week in October with about as much media attention and fanfare as Physician’s Assistant Day on October 6 (remember to smile when you hand them your sample) and Leif Erikson Day on October 9 (don’t forget to order your Dragon Boat cake). Yet, I would argue that customer service week is far more important than Leif Erikson Day, and not just because Leif Eriskon is dead. Theoretically, customer service week is an opportunity for companies to show appreciation to their customer service employees as much as it is to show appreciation for their actual customers. Indeed, in most cases, it is the employees who need the appreciation more, much, much more. In my book The Squeaky Wheel, I devote an entire chapter to the stresses suffered by customer-service and call-center employees as well as what companies could do to mitigate such stresses. In addition, in a recent article in Psychology Today (The Last Bullying Frontier) I wrote about how many members of the public bully call-center employees and the impact their hostility has on the physical and especially the mental health of call-center workers.

As a response to the article I received many emails and comments from call-center employees (none from companies or call-center managers). To bring home the importance of Customer Service Week as an opportunity for companies to support, encourage, and recognize the efforts of their customer service employees, especially those who work in call-centers, here are quotes from five call-center employees who commented on the article, the stresses of their jobs and the impact those stresses have on their lives and happiness:

Quotes from Call-Center Employees about Job Stress

1. “I get callers that forget I'm a human and not the mere personification of their frustrations. I can understand their frustration, but I am not paid to be their punching bag… I sometimes see fellow employees in tears.”

2. “I've worked at two centers and I've left both after hitting breaking point with the abuse suffered. The first time I quit I took a month off before I was ready to try it again, this time in a significantly different field. The second time I quit saw a few months of daily binge drinking, serious depression, failed therapy sessions and finally starting to settle down after getting onto antidepressants… I honestly can't recommend this kind of work to any sane person.”

3. “There is an attitude among many Americans that anyone who dares to approach them for a sale deserves abuse.”

4. “Call center survivor here...Over the course of six years in tech support, I developed an aversion to phones. Every time the phone rings I get a knot of anxiety in my gut... an implicit sense of fear and dread. I've talked to others who experience the same issue, and many of us can no longer comfortably talk on the phone in our personal lives…And based on the number of people I've talked to who experience it, I can't help but think it's massively common in the industry.”

5. “Thank you for this article! My husband currently works for a major cell phone service provider in their tech support division and puts up with the most insane human behavior. We met while we both worked at a different call center, so I too know the abuses people are capable of and the toll it takes on the receiver… I hate seeing what it does to him, but we just cannot afford it [him leaving], especially in this economy. I just want to say to others, please, these representatives on the other end of the line are someone else’s loved ones. They have lives and families, just like you and no more deserve your anger and wrath any more than you would. They do not dictate company policy. They are just as much a slave to it as you are.”

Hopefully, both companies and customers can take heed and use Customer Service Week to raise awareness for the need to treat Customer Service Representatives with respect, civility, and appreciation for doing a job that is among the most stressful of all occupations.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Customer Service for the Undead

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

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

The Undead Represent the Perfect Complaint Handling Opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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

How We Treat Call-Center Representatives

A few weeks ago I posted a tongue-in-cheek ‘Customer Service Kindness Test’ in which I suggested that our treatment of call-center representatives is a good way to assess our general kindness. Of course, my goal in doing so was both to amuse and to educate readers about how poorly we treat call center representatives and how unfair it is of us to do so. This issue is one I feel deserves far more attention than it gets. In The Squeaky Wheel, I devoted an entire chapter to a behind the scenes look at call centers (with section heading such as A Day in the Life of a Human Punching Bag).  In my Psychology Today blog I posted an article titled The Last Bullying Frontier, in which I claimed our treatment of call center representatives represented an example of bullying on a national scale, and that this phenomenon received neither recognition nor empathy from the public or the media.

A few days after I posted the Kindness Test a former call-center representative left a comment on the Bullying article which I felt represented exactly the concerns I've been trying to address. Only their comments came after having personally experienced the painful consequences of working with a hostile public on a daily basis. Here is the full version of the reader’s comment.

"As someone who has worked at call centers for the last two and a half years I'm glad to see an article about this issue.

I've worked at two centers and I've left both after hitting breaking point with the abuse suffered. The first time I quit I took a month off before I was ready to try it again, this time in a significantly different field. The second time I quit saw a few months of daily binge drinking, serious depression, failed therapy sessions and finally starting to settle down after getting onto anti-depressants.

Prior to my first call-center job I was a poor as dirt deadbeat with no qualifications aside from high school graduation and some technical skills, despite this I was a pretty happy guy, confident in what I did know and a fast (albeit lazy) learner. I took that first job mostly for the pay which was excellent for someone of my skills, hoping to do it for a few years and use that to pay for future study.

I've had two and a half years of work but at the end I don't have anything to show for it. As a person I've changed and not in a good way, financially I'm not any better off, my old social life is well and truly gone, I'm nowhere near as fit as I used to be and mentally I'm not in the best of places. Many of the physical issues are entirely my own fault, resulting from poor decision making and I'm not too stupid to attribute them to anything else but the depression, the nerves, the inability to feel anything slightly resembling empathy, they all come from what I went through as a CSR.

I honestly can't recommend this kind of work to any sane person. If it looked like I'd have to work at one again, I think I would become a mugger before I would even consider another call center and the worst part is…I'm not even sure that's a joke."

I was truly saddened to hear the reader's account as it conveyed the real world impact we consumers can have on the mental and physical health of call center employees and indeed on their lives as a whole. I promptly left a reply to the reader and asked them to contact me. Sure enough, the reader reached out to me through the contact sheet on this website (always a good way to reach me). I was glad to hear they were doing somewhat better, although still not fully recovered.

I hope we can begin to pay more attention to our treatment of call center representatives and spare other young workers from experiencing similar emotional ordeals. If you've had similar experiences, please feel free to comment.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

The Heavy (Metal) Price of Bad Customer Service

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

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

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

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

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

The Mistakes Cisco Made in Complaint Management:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Consequences of Cisco’s Poor Customer Service Efforts

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

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

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

The Moral of Customer Service Stories like Mike’s.

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

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

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

Cisco Sucks! by Mike Soltis on YouTube

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

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

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

You might also like:

The Psychology of Customer Loyalty

Does Your Company Know How to Apologize Effectively?

Finding Customer Service Solutions within Customer Complaints

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