Why Aren’t You Helping Me, You Half-Witted, Time-Wasting, Rip-Off Merchant?

Speaking on the BBC this week, Guy Winch, psychologist and complaining expert, (or rather, expert on complaining) talked about the contradiction between our need to let off steam when we have experienced poor service, and our drive to resolve the problem.

Guy Winch points out that although we really want to vent our feelings when we have been let down by an organisation, if we do this vociferously to an innocent call centre representative, and then expect them to pull out all the stops to rectify the problem, we are simply barking up the wrong tree.

A recurrent theme here on Customer Service Psychology is how the failure to appreciate the emotions involved in customer service underlies and explains many of the problems that both organisations and customers have with service relationships and outcomes.   (http://bit.ly/reScVChttp://bit.ly/vMm9A8 etc.).

Once we lose sight of the fact that our own responses to disappointment in both personal and business relationships are emotional, as are the responses of any customer service employee, we are much less likely to get a satisfactory result.   Of course, that is not to say that by understanding and acting on this knowledge we will definitely secure what we want, but simply that it will give us the best chance of achieving it.  

Guy Winch suggests that we think clearly about what we want to achieve with a complaint.  We should pick our battles carefully, complaining when and only when it is important and using a technique he calls the “complaint sandwich”.  In other words, we should sandwich the meat of the complaint between two pieces of positive bread.  An example might go something like:

“I was really pleased to receive a delivery from you this morning as I love your products, but when I opened it I was really disappointed to see that there were 2 items missing.  This hasn’t happened before and I know that you work really hard to deliver everything to time and specification.  I wonder if you can resolve this issue for me?”

This “sandwich” metaphor will be familiar to many HR and line managers who have had training in how to deliver performance feedback to their staff where it is often known as the “feedback sandwich”.  Tell someone what they are really good at, tell them something they could improve and then feed back something else you have noticed that they are great at. This makes the point but lowers defensiveness by making it clear that strengths and effort have been recognised too.  Importantly, the conversation covers more good than bad.

Simply put, we find criticism difficult, but if it is wrapped up in an extolment of our many virtues and presented as a tiny little improvement that could make a huge difference, we can usually accept it. 

The principle stands in every relationship we have in life: with our children, our partners, our families, our friends, our colleagues, our neighbours, our bosses and our employees.  People will try harder if we are mostly positive, and at some level we probably all know that this is the case.

So why is it that we don’t use the complaint sandwich every time? 

Why do we often rant and rave?  Why do we launch into a vehement catalogue of complaints when we have been let down by a company, taken time away from other things we should be doing, kept on hold for 20 minutes and then put through to a call centre representative whose command of English means we have little chance of a productive conversation.  Well naturally because we are human:  an emotional, irrational and currently fuming human.  And, arguably, sometimes what we actually need most is to let off steam.  The effort involved in containing a basic emotional response to injustice and betrayal (which as previous posts have explored are often the emotions we are feeling, however much of a rational, sophisticated gloss we put on them) is just too much.  The need to restore balance and be heard is top of the list, and resolving the issue has to take second place.

A really intelligent company will understand this, and its representatives will be trained and supported in understanding and dealing with the emotions customers bring to their interactions with a company representative.  But most don’t, and crucially don’t invest in the recruitment, training, management and reward processes which enable front line customer-facing employees to cope with this.  So unfortunately, bubbling frustrations, obvious and unhelpful scripts, raised voices and terminations of calls are standard fare in the hubbub of service conversations around the world.

In fact, it became clear to me that there is a line of training provided to customer service staff that actively encourages customer service representatives to find reasons to terminate a customer interaction specifically as a result of the expression of emotions.  A snippet from the middle of a conversation I overheard between an irritated customer and a very uncomfortable car parts front desk clerk will demonstrate I hope.

Customer  “…so it just isn’t good enough to say you won’t provide a courtesy car while you repair my brand new car for the fourth time since I bought it two months ago.  I will need a courtesy car.”

Desk Clerk “If you raise your voice, Mrs Parker, I will terminate this conversation”

Customer  “I am not raising my voice, I am asking you to find me a car.”

Desk Clerk  “Right, OK.  Well I can’t do that, we don’t have one available.”

Customer “Yes you can.  It is utterly unacceptable to sell me a car that is falling apart when I made it clear I wanted a reliable car and then to leave me carless for a week. Do you think that is acceptable?

Desk Clerk (backing off)  “If you are insulting I am entitled to end this conversation right now”

Customer “ Fine.  Tell me where I have been insulting and we can agree to end it”  Pause  “Good, now you can try to find me a courtesy car.”

The front desk clerk was searching for the “legitimate reason” given to him in training that would enable him to walk away from the customer’s problem and associated emotion.  How much better it would have been to train him in listening to, acknowledging and sympathising with the customer’s perspective whilst not taking the emotions personally.   No additional investment required – just a simple change of approach which would demonstrate customer-centricity and result in improved customer loyalty. 

Guy Winch has teamed up with a call centre to experimentally examine the effect of training call centre employees in improved “emotional validation” behaviour.  Do call centre agents who listen and acknowledge emotions leave customers more satisfied with the service they have received?  It seems obvious when you think about it – people who are genuinely heard and acknowledged will feel better about the situation.  Yet there is little hard evidence out there from real life customer interactions and so Guy Winch’s results, whatever they show, will be welcome.   

Organisations work hard to deliver excellent products and services to their customers.  Perhaps they could work a little harder to understand how problems with them can influence the emotions of their customers.   They already do a great job in appreciating how emotions influence decisions to purchase, so it would complete the circle.

You’ve got it.  Feedback sandwich anyone?



Guy Winch, author of “The Squeaky Wheel”.   More at http://www.guywinch.com


2 Comments to “Why Aren’t You Helping Me, You Half-Witted, Time-Wasting, Rip-Off Merchant?”

  1. Excellent article! Thanks for representing my views so accurately. And yes, your complaint sandwich example was spot on! Best wishes to you and your readers
    Guy Winch Ph.D.
    Author: The Squeaky Wheel

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