Guy received his doctorate in clinical psychology from New York University in 1991 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in family and couples therapy at NYU Medical Center. Guy authors the blog The Squeaky Wheel for Psychology Today.
The Squeaky Wheel: S04E23 / 125
Table of contents
[00:00] Introduction from Bryan J Busch
[00:37] Interview with Dr. Guy Winch
— [00:50] How we complain
— [02:02] Venting or strengthening the problem
— [04:39] Ineffective complaints on the Internet
— [08:13] Creativity is better than anger
— [09:10] Outsourcing to GetSatisfaction
— [10:21] Most effective complaints
— [11:10] Companies that annoy consumers
— [13:27] Complaining effectively
— [15:08] Complaining to friends
— [18:20] Effective complaining in personal relationships
— [19:14] Complaining correctly about overdraft fees
— [24:18] Creating a Complaint Sandwich
— [28:42] End
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Theme music by Mindcube.
Bryan J Busch: On today’s episode of the Consumerism Commentary Podcast we talk about complaining, but we talk about how to do it correctly.
Guy: Thank you for having me.
Bryan: So your book is about complaining, but that activity has mostly negative connotations associated with it. The first I thought of was Doug and Wendy Whiner from Saturday Night Live. Do you think that the act of complaining deserves its bad reputation?
Guy: I think the way we complain today, it absolutely does. Today we complain more than ever before in history really, and we’re just terrible at it. We don’t get the results that we want, and in many cases we’re not even trying to. We’re complaining prodigiously and getting very little from it. The reputation for being an annoyance or a nuisance is deserved.
Ultimately I think that it’s a shame that it is like that because we could complain differently. Complaints used to be transactional tools. They used to be ways we would communicate our desires and needs for change. Right now we’re not using them in that way when we should. We’re using them really just for defense most of the time.
Guy: The reputation is well deserved at the moment, although I think it’s really time to change that.
Bryan: Sometime last year I think I saw on the TV show Mythbusters that they scientifically proved that verbally expressing your pain can reduce the actual amount of pain that you feel because it’s all in your head. Is complaining sort of like that too when it comes to just using it as a venting tool?
Guy: I think it’s a little different. I didn’t see that show. What happens with pain is that when we divert attentional resources to a different activity like verbally expressing our pain, it takes away the amount of attention we pay to our pain. It makes the pain or the experience of pain reduced. For example, now with burn victims they’re using video games to distract them while their wounds are being changed. That really eases the amount of their pain.
I think with pain it’s about diverting our attention because we have a finite amount of attention. If we can divert some of it away from the thing that’s causing the pain we will experience the pain less. Not the case with complaining. With complaining, by venting or by voicing our complaints we’re actually experiencing some kind of emotional release. We are letting out bad feelings. Really there are different payoffs we have when we vent. The full payoff is just to say it. The mutterers muttering about what it would be or muttering to their dog when they get home in the evening about how his boss was annoying.
The real payoff with venting is emotional validation, which is to vent to someone who truly gets why we’re feeling and what we’re feeling and can convey that back to us. When we complain to someone and they can actually look at us and go, “My goodness, so that was really, really frustrating. I can imagine you were so upset.” That feels good. When we give the same presentation to someone who just looks at us and says, “Oh, bummer,” less good.
The power of venting is to do it to someone who can emotionally validate our experiences and really make us feel understood. Then there is a significant relief in it. Now, in part this is what therapy is all about. I’m a psychologist so I know this more than most. People go to psychologists – people often say, “I can just complain to my friends.” Psychologists are trained in many things but one of them is to be very good in active listening and reflecting back to the person that they truly understand and can empathize with the complaints and the feelings being expressed. That has a therapeutic value.
Bryan: In the book you talk about how complaining has largely moved from real space to the internet, and become even less effective as a result. I noticed, myself that most of Twitter and Facebook seemed to be complaints until I decided to pay attention to individual patterns and unfollow the people who were using it as an outlet for venting. I may have been doing something that not a lot of people do. Is that what you mostly see when you look online?
Guy: When I look online I mostly see really a repetition of what happens in the real world. That is a lot of people are complaining, but they’re doing it really ineffectively. In other words, even on Twitter there are many companies now that monitor Twitter feeds for complaints and will respond. But if you’re going on Twitter and you’re Tweeting to, say, Delta Airlines, they have a hash tag deltaassist and say, “Delta Assist, my flight got cancelled, need confirmation tomorrow, please help.” You’re likely to get a response. If you’re just going on there to go, “Delta sucks,” not.
Unfortunately most people are the “Delta sucks,” variety, not singling out Delta by any means here. Most people are just going on Twitter and Facebook and other social media to just vent, slam or fling comments about companies and not to request assistance. This is the fundamental problem we have in terms of our understanding of how complaints should be utilized. When we’re complaining, by definition, we are asking someone for help. We are asking someone to resolve something, to assist us, to give us some kind of response that we would find helpful and that would resolve the matter that we are complaining about. We don’t perceive of our complaints as requests for help, so we come at it with aggression and with anger and with hostility.
If you’re asking for help for someone and you’re coming at them with anger and hostility and aggression, you’re not going to get much help. On the other hand, if you come at them with kindness, with civility, with respect you will. So if people used the online venue to complain effectively, to really realize that they’re reaching out to people in a request for assistance, and to do that nicely I think that the online venues could be really helpful in that way.
There are many message boards online where people can voice complaints about companies. When I was researching my book I started looking at some of them. Some of them are really just hateful message boards. Not hateful in that they’re hateful, but they’re just about hating certain companies. This company sucks kind of message boards. I went on them to see that there must be terrible stories there of what these companies have done to these poor people that would lead them to invest huge amounts of resources and time to create whole websites devoted to hating the company.
When you go onto these websites all you see are the really standard complaints about getting overbilled, or the reception wasn’t good or my bank gave me too many fees. They’re the most standard complaints ever. Instead people are so busy hating and being angry and frustrated and antagonistic, they’re forgetting that if they spent a fraction of that time just being constructive, civil and respectful, they could actually resolve their issue and they wouldn’t have to start whole websites just to document how angry they are.
Bryan: Speaking of Delta, I think that was the airline that accidentally broke a man’s guitar and he decided to write a song about it and create a YouTube video.
Guy: Was that Delta? Yes, I know the song. I just forget, was that Delta?
Bryan: I don’t know for sure. It could have been. But certainly you’re not suggesting that a person needs to be quite that creative in order to get a company’s attention.
Guy: Well actually, you know what? I’m actually thinking that creativity is better than the anger. He actually did it in a way that was funny, that was amusing, that was interesting. Yes, he was annoyed but he channeled that. As a psychologist when you take the raw anger you have and you channel it into something creative there’s obviously something good there. That’s what that person did. He didn’t just start nasty websites about how terrible the company was. He did something creative, fun, interesting, and I assure you he enjoyed doing it. So he turned that experience for himself from one that was negative into one that was quite positive.
Bryan: I’ve seen a lot of companies halfway outsource their customer support and service calls to Get Satisfaction. Have you seen that one?
Guy: Yes, yes.
Bryan: Part of the usefulness is that the customer is not relying wholly on the company to respond. They can get answers from fellow customers as well. Does that seem helpful to you?
Guy: What Get Satisfaction does, which I think is terrific, is first of all the company was started by a person called Thor Muller and his idea was that he wanted to create a dialogue between consumers and companies that was civil. This was one of the most important things that had guided him at the beginning. He wanted not just to have a regular message board, but he wanted to create an ongoing dialogue between companies and consumers. Now, of course, it’s developed into having a general dialogue even among consumers. He wanted the tone to be civil. He wanted it to be constructive.
That’s why his company has become so successful. They offer all these services for people to have dialogue within groups and so consumers can help one another. Companies will sign up and will be very responsive, but they really make sure that the tone is constructive.
What I advocate most in my book is that we have forgotten that complaints should be really civil, transactional, business communications. It would not occur to us in a business communication, otherwise, to be furious and angry, cursing, putdowns. We would not consider that businesslike. But as consumers our complaints are business communications. They should adhere to these rules. If we made them civil and respectful and businesslike, again, we would get results rather than just get frustration, which is what happens most of the time at the moment.
So yes, Get Satisfaction I think is doing a really important thing, not just by creating this vehicle for communication and dialogue but also by making the tone of it so specific.
One thing that really still surprises me in some way about companies, is that companies – although consumers have a huge misuse of complaints, companies are not on the ball yet either. To them, when a consumer has a complaint, this is the moment the consumer most wants to talk to the company. This is the moment where the company can communicate with their consumer, if they elicited and listened and responded to these complaints.
This is where they can perform the service recovery that will make the consumer satisfied. Rather than lose the customer, create even greater customer loyalty within that person because they feel like, “Oh, I had a problem. The company listened, they responded, that’s a company I’m going to stick with.”
Complaints are huge opportunities for everyone. They’re huge opportunities for consumers to really take care of their problems and, by the way, save a significant amount of money. All these refunds and disputes that we have that annoy us, all these products that are sitting in our garage shelves because they arrived broken and you did nothing with them, there is a lot of money we’re leaving on the table because we just feel like there’s no point, it won’t help. Well, we could actually be getting refunds and returns and replacements.
It’s a huge opportunity for consumers and it’s a huge opportunity for companies to engage their consumers, to educate them, to inform them about products, to perform service recoveries and turn them into loyal customers, to create the kind of dialogue at the moment the consumer wants to have that dialogue most. The amount of companies that do that is still exceedingly small. There are still way, way too many companies that have things called planned inconvenience. They actually make it difficult for the consumer or for the customer to communicate with them when something goes wrong. They’re missing out on the most crucial opportunity they have to increase their customer retention and to really change the feeling of the customer about the company.
So the education needs to go all around. These complaints are valuable, valuable tools to everyone if we use them correctly. If I may just one more thing on that line, I always think about someone said, “My husband is the one who complains when something goes wrong in our family,” she said, “Because he has the power.” She said it truly as if she meant he has the super-power. It’s a special ability. It’s like leaping tall buildings now or being faster than a speeding bullet to be able to complain effectively because it’s such a rare commodity.
To me, it’s like the complaints are the spinach that would make Popeye strong, except most people don’t eat the spinach. They stuff it in their pipe, smoke it and get emphysema. So the use of complaints is just completely the opposite of what it should be. We are losing when we should be gaining.
Bryan: That’s particularly interesting. We just had a show with a man who believes that women are actually more hard wired to be better negotiators.
Guy: People have to believe that they can get a result, that it’s worth speaking up, that they know how to do it in a way that is effective and that it is worth their trouble to speak up, to dialogue with a company, to dialogue with a store, to mention it to the manager, etcetera, and get a result.
What prevents people from doing that now is this general feeling of learned hopelessness, essentially, which means that people are convinced there’s no point, that they will fail. People are convinced the company is not interested in listening to their complaint. People are convinced that it will be too much time and hassle to complain to the company.
Here’s the irony. In some cases 95% of consumers will walk out of the store dissatisfied with a purchase because it was the wrong color, the wrong size, it didn’t do what it was supposed to do, etcetera. 95% of people who feel that way and are strongly frustrated and want to complain will not complain to the store or company in question because they are convinced that it will require too much time and effort to do that.
However, they will then go, these very same people, and voice this very same complaint to up to 16 of their friends and family. In other words, they will spend hours complaining about something that truly frustrates them and not spend ten minutes making a phone call or writing an email because they’re convinced actually that will take too much time. They’ll spend far more time complaining to everyone else, none of whom can do anything to actually resolve their problem.
Guy: That’s our psychology of complaining, which is so problematic. It’s a self-defeating prophesy that just has us convinced there’s no point. And so we don’t try, which just reinforces our perception that there’s no point. People around us see that, “They had a complaint and they didn’t complain so I guess I shouldn’t even try either.”
I use this example in the book of someone who had a problem with their big screen television. When the big screen TVs came out they had this huge thing mounted on the wall. It had a problem within a short amount of time. They called the cable company twice and twice the technicians seemed to have repaired it but weren’t successful. Then they stopped calling. It prevented them from being able to watch the television. A year later this huge thing was hanging on the wall but not working.
Bryan: A year, wow.
Guy: A year. When I said, “Why don’t you call a third time? Surely you can speak to someone higher up. Surely there are tiers of technicians and you can get somebody more competent.” “Nope. It won’t help. They just don’t know what they’re doing.” They truly believed that there was no one in the company that could possibly fix whatever tiny glitch was wrong with the TV. They just stayed with that on the wall. Can you imagine walking in and out of that room several times a day starting at that monstrosity on the wall that does nothing and not feeling completely aggravated and frustrated and upset and defeated by it?
There are so many things like that in our lives. The child’s toy. The dollhouse which arrived with everything except the roof but we were too busy. We never took care of it. Every time you pass by that child playing and the roof missing we just look at it and feel bad for her and bad for us, but, “Oh, there’s no point. The company really doesn’t care.” In part what happens is that the frequency of these occurrences, because we have so many of these small complaints that add up – and some of them are more meaningful than others – it really has an impact on our self-esteem, on our mental health, on our quality of life.
I should mention the same thing, by the way, happens in our personal relationships. We are equally convinced that complaining to our wives and our husbands will be ineffective and just start an argument so we squelch those complaints, too, and just go and tell our buddies at the gym. It’s the general psychology of complaining that we have right now that is so defeatist and fraught with hopelessness and helplessness when it truly doesn’t have to be. That’s not the reality. It’s only the reality that we create in our minds.
What was surprising to me when I got into this topic about complaining was that it seemed to me that this terrible thing was happening with our mindset, with our complaining psychology if you will, and no one was paying attention. No one noticed. I wrote the book to say, “Hello, start paying attention. This is really impacting your quality of life and it doesn’t have to.”
Bryan: So it sounds like when we approach a problem with angry feelings we’re likely to get worse results. As an example, could you teach me a better way to complain if say I had overdraft fees that I didn’t feel like I was really responsible for and I wanted to call the bank and get them reversed?
Guy: Yes, well let’s start with your feelings about it. The paradox of complaining is that we feel the urge to complain most when we’re at our most frustrated. Yet to complain effectively, we have to be calm and reasonable. That’s a tricky proposition. One of the most effective things that we can do in those situations is using a psychological technique called reframing or reappraisal it’s called as well in which we reframe the problem in our heads to make it less emotional and volatile for us.
One of the ways to do that with complaints is if we’re going to try and see whether we have the capacity to complain effectively and get a result, then we can reframe the current situation. Rather than, “Let me see if those people at the bank really care about me,” to, “Here’s an interesting puzzle. Let me see if I can use the tools I’ve acquired in terms of effective complaining to get the result I want. Let me see if this can really work. This is really an experiment.” When we’re doing an experiment we are focused again, back to the pain example with Mythbusters, our focus goes from the visceral experience we have to thinking. It draws away attentional resources and we feel less angry just the way we feel less pain when we’re playing a video game. We have to present this to ourselves as a puzzle.
One really important thing to remember that will also help you with your frustration in that moment is that the person you’re calling at the bank is a front line employee. They are low salaried. They work in very difficult conditions. All they do all day is deal with angry customers. They are not the ones that are living off the fat of the lambs and enjoying huge dividends. They’re really minimum-salaried employees. They did not cause the financial collapse. They did not come up with these rules and regulations. They’re only there to try and help you.
If you can remember that the person that you’re talking to might be a representative of the bank, but they’re probably not even in the same state or the same city as the bank is, that they’re just these simple mothers or students or people working a second job trying to get by, and not take your frustration out on them because I assure you it is never their fault. They’re not the ones that made the mistake. They’re only the ones that have to clean up the mess. So if we treat them nicely you’ll be much more likely to get the results.
The question that you should have is you would say hello and explain your situation, and then explain that, “I want to dispute this amount of money. Are you authorized for those amounts or do I need to speak to someone higher up?” The person who’s answering the phone is often authorized to clear, say $25 or a dispute of $30 but not more. If it’s more they would have to speak to somebody higher up. If you’re nice and civil and you’re aware of that, they have to go through their procedures because they are not allowed to independently chat with you. They have very rigid procedures they have to follow on their screens. It tells them, “Now ask about this. Now if they say this you go here. If they say this you go there.” Their job depends on their following those prescriptions. Their leeway is limited.
If you understand that if it’s going a certain way it’s not them being difficult, it’s them following a computer program which is being difficult, then you can say to them, “I get the sense that you’re not authorized to help me with that amount. Can I ask you, I really feel I shouldn’t pay that because,” and you mention the circumstances. “Could I ask you what you might suggest that I should do?” Or you can say, “Can I ask to speak to your supervisor? Really you’ve been very helpful and I really appreciate your time but I think I need somebody who can deal with the amount that I’m trying to dispute.”
Bryan: Instead of the more common technique of making them feel like they’re helpless and not doing what you want them to do.
Guy: Well, that would be a nice version of it. Actually what the research shows is that these kinds of people deal with ten hostile calls a day. By hostile I don’t mean somebody suggesting that they don’t know what they’re doing. I mean somebody cursing them, threatening them, belittling them, yelling at them, shouting at them. This is what we do to these people. They’re really on the lines and they really have to put up with a huge amount of hostility from the public that just feels if I’m frustrated with a company, that’s the person I’m going to take it out on, even though that person had nothing to do with the problem. Of course they find then that that person’s not very helpful. Really? You just cursed them. Why would they be?
Bryan: In the book you talk about creating a complaint sandwich, the first part being an ear opener. What is an ear opener?
Guy: The idea with the complaint sandwich is that we all have a very natural default response to complaints when we’re on the receiving end of them, which is that we get defensive. This is probably an evolutionary thing. I doubt when we were in the caves any discussions that started with, “Hey, that’s my mammoth pelt you’re wearing,” was followed by some kind of discussion of community property. It was probably dealt with a spear in the heart. So we naturally get defensive when somebody is about to complain to us. It’s a natural thing.
Since we want them to really be able to hear what we’re saying and if they’re too defensive they’ll be too busy planning their rebuttal than to listen to the actual content of our complaint. We want our first statement to be one that is positive so that it relaxes their defenses as much as possible. I call that first layer of bread in the complain sandwich the ear opener, because it is a positive statement, the purpose of which is to make the person less defensive and more open to the meat of the sandwich which is going to be our actual complaint that is going to follow. It’s important to start with something positive, or at least neutral.
Then we should deliver the meat of the sandwich. The goal of the meat is to keep it lean. In other words, just stay with a specific incident that happened. If this happened before with the bank back in 1993, it doesn’t matter. That’s not relevant. Just stay with this is what happened in a very simple, reasonable, civil presentation.
Then the last slice of bread in the complaint sandwich, the second slice of bread, is the digestive. The idea there is to end again with something positive. If you end with something positive, for example on the phone with the contact center employee by saying, “Here’s the situation. I really appreciate your help and advice and I’m really glad that I was able to get through to you.” You’re telling them, number one, it makes them easier for them to digest the meat of the sandwich you just gave them. It motivates them to want to help you because they know that you’ll be grateful if they do as opposed to still being angry or hostile.
The idea of the sandwich is to create somebody who will listen without getting defensive, who will hear the content of what you’re saying of the complaint without getting distracted by your tone or your anger, and who will then be motivated to do the best that they can to resolve it for you.
Bryan: Now this may not be true of everybody with better memories than I have, but it sounds like it may even be helpful to plan and prepare a complaint sandwich, and even write it down before calling.
Guy: It’s really true. When I talk about the complaining sandwich with people they go, “That’s simple, just a positive statement, then the complaint, and then a positive statement.” But when they’re in the moment it’s sometimes a little difficult to come up with that positive statement. This happens more actually when somebody’s complaining to their spouse or to a loved one. They think it’s easy but it’s actually a little bit challenging.
In the book I give numerous examples of that, but it is worthwhile spending literally two minutes – it shouldn’t take more – to jot down what an ear opener can be and what a digestive can be, what those two slices of bread might be just so that you have them at the ready. Usually you have a couple of minutes on the line listening and going through menus or listening to some kind of tune or message, so you have a little bit of time to write that down. I do think it’s worthwhile homework. It takes very little time but again, the difference this makes is it will make your call effective. The payoff of being able to get off the call that was a pleasant one for you, that was a pleasant one for them, that was productive all in all and that actually got the fees reduced is significant.
I’ve had people write me emails since the book came out saying, “I had this thing lying on my desk that I’d given up on but I decided I’m going to try the complaint sandwich. We went and we did it and it was remarkably easy.” People are always shocked that it works because we are so used to complaining in hostile tones that it’s shocking to us that when you actually just do it politely and use civility and kindness it gets you further.
Bryan: That’s great. Well, I enjoyed reading the book and I wish you the best of luck with it. Thank you very much for being here on the show with us today.
Guy: Thank you for having me Bryan.
Bryan: Join us again next week for more great, personal financial advice and information.
Updated June 24, 2016 and originally published March 27, 2011.