In the days of stagecoaches, buckboards and covered wagons, crude wooden wheels turned around crude wooden axles, producing lots of friction and heat. To keep the wooden wheels and axles from burning away, they were lubricated by slathering them with lots of axle grease. It was easy to tell when a wheel needed grease because the squeaking from the friction would get louder. Over time, the phrase ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease’ came to mean the one who gets the most attention and the most help is the one who makes the most noise.
You may not get anything done by complaining, but you have a better chance than if you say nothing
Research has shown over and over again that most customers don’t take the time to complain when they have a problem because they don’t believe anything will be done about it. But research also shows that those customers who complain are far more likely to receive attention, assistance and solutions to their problems than those who stay quiet.
The odometer on my car was approaching 15,000 miles, the threshold for a scheduled warranty inspection. When I called to schedule an appointment, I asked if the inspection involved any fee to me. Just the oil and filter change, he said. When I said the oil had been changed just 1,500 miles ago, he said in that case no oil change would be performed. We agreed that if the technicians found something that needed attention, they would call me for approval first and they would perform no service that required me to pay.
When I arrived at the dealership, I went over all of that again with the guy assigned to me. He looked at the onboard computer and agreed the car was not due for an oil change, so they would just do the inspection. We also agreed that if the technicians found something that needed attention, he would call me for approval first. I left the car at noon and said I would return around 6 pm.
Around 3 pm, I got a call from yet another employee, my third so far. He said my oil had been changed 1,500 miles ago, so why did I bring it in for an oil change? Employees 1 and 2 both knew my service specified NO OIL CHANGE but neither seems to have spoken with employee #3. He agreed there would be no oil change and no charge for the inspection.
When I arrived at 6 pm to pick up the car, I met employee 4. She handed me invoice # 923258 for $62.87 for an oil change. Taken aback, I said something is wrong here because three of your employees assured me no one would change the oil and I would not be billed for anything. She politely said she had to be paid before she could release the car. She said I needed to talk with the service manager but everyone had already gone home. I asked for the manager’s name and phone number and she wrote it for me on a business card. I thanked her and left.
My call the next day to the service manager (employee #5) was dumped into voice mail and my email was not returned. The next day I sent another email and left another voice mail. Research has shown over and over again that most customers don’t complain when they have a problem because they don’t believe anything will be done about it. Two days later and with no response to my four messages, the service manager continued to ignore my existence. Thinking he might be one of those people who thinks all customers with problems will tire quickly and give up, I took the next step.
The dealership had already emailed me a customer service survey about my latest service experience. I checked boxes and chose ratings because I had to, but also wrote in detail about my experience and my disappointment. As soon as I posted it, I sent the same letter in an email to the Director of Retail Experience and Training for the car company’s USA dealerships, the woman who signed the survey, employee #6. I also posted an online review.
Within the hour, I heard from employee #7, the director of service and #5’s boss. He apologized and said he would refund my money and give me a voucher for a free oil change when I needed it. He added that because I mentioned in my review and survey that my car came back with my seat and mirrors out of whack and dirt on my seat, he wanted to give me a free full auto detailing, too. I agreed that he had solved my problem and was more generous than I had expected. A few days later, I made an appointment for the detailing (with employee #1 on the phone again) and left my car for the afternoon with employee #8.
When I went to pick it up, employee #9 apologized for the paint missing from the hood
An employee had nicked the paint while detailing my car. The entire hood would need to be repainted – at no cost, of course. Employee #9 said they were sorry and I could bring it back next week and they’d fix it at no charge, of course. When #7 and I talked again, he said there was no need for me to have to make a trip because of a mistake they made.
As an apology, he would have someone come pick up my car and deliver me a loaner to use while they painted my car. Really looking to make amends, he sent me a car that cost twice what mine did. The repainting was to take two days but it was a week before they brought my car back. When it finally arrived, I called #7 again. He said he inspected it personally and noticed I needed new windshield wipers, so he had the technician put a new set of them on for me, no charge. I thanked him for putting $10 of gas in it, too.
Most companies take a passive approach to customer service
They know that only one customer in ten will seek a solution to a problem, and almost all of those who do raise an issue will tire quickly and give up if you ignore them. What businesses also know is that customers with negative experiences tell others about them, creating negative publicity for the business. Research shows that on average, frustrated customers tell two dozen others about their bad experiences. As a result, businesses generally focus their attention on the squeaky wheels.
How To Be a Squeaky Wheel
- Write a good letter: Do this offline so you can experiment with different ways of telling your story. If you write in a separate document, you can rearrange things and correct your typos. There is no sense in appearing like a hothead or an idiot. Writing your letter this way allows you to send a copy to whomever you wish and paste it in your customer surveys and reviews, too.
- Make your problem easy to deal with: Be concise. Write simply and clearly. Your goal is to help the decision-maker get to the root of your problem and solve it. Identify employees by their roles, not their names. You are not looking to blame an individual. You are telling a decision-maker about a mistake the business made.
- State the facts: The more details you can provide, the better your case. Provide all the real data you can. Include order numbers, service orders, receipt numbers, and in my case, the year, make and model of my car and its license plate number. Avoid criticizing so no one has to defend.
- Tell your story: Tell your story as you’d tell it to a reporter. Tell it in the order it happened so it is easy to follow. Include the time and date things occurred.
Where to use your letter
- Paste it into the customer survey they send you.
- Send it to the executive who signed the survey request. My survey invitation was signed by a national level executive that oversees all service for the USA. I looked her up on LinkedIn and sent her my letter. She apologized and said she’d look into it.
- Post a review on their corporate website. This gets things done when local employees ignore your emails and calls.
- Send a copy to corporate execs. If you can’t find their email addresses, send your letters to the head office via the postal service. Choose people with important titles.
- If none of that works for you, contact the Better Business Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission.
The dealership sent another survey
This time I gave them top marks and added this: No business or employee is perfect and they all make mistakes. The difference between good customer service and bad is what the company does when they’ve made a mistake. CCH made one mistake that led to another in what would be called a comedy of errors if it happened to someone else. CCH more than made up for the original problem and the next one, too, by refunding my money and providing me with hundreds of dollars in goods and services. Of course I will return there to have my car serviced, and of course I recommend them highly.
Another case study
In October 2018 I wrote about another customer service case study, this one with a rental car company. It is titled The Glamour of International Business Travel and it also talks about how to be a squeaky wheel.
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