Six Sigma
Last Word


Last Word
Dirk Dusharme

I Love a Screamer

If you're done kicking the clerk, would you mind stepping aside?

I love a screamer --the guy who shoves his big red schnoz six inches from the airline gate agent's face, threatening to sue the airport, the airline and the ticket agent because his flight was overbooked and his seat reassigned. His decibel level slowly winds up to F-14-Tomcat-on-afterburners range, as if the sheer volume of his voice will convince the (by now spittle-specked) agent to miraculously make a seat appear or, better yet, eject the passenger who had the gall to show up earlier than the screamer did. That guy. I love him --especially when I'm next in line.

 I smile at the gate agent. "Tough day, huh?" The agent is usually so relieved to have a sane person to talk to that she'd gladly kick her own son off the plane just to make sure I have a seat --or at least try a little harder to book me on another flight. The screamer, meanwhile, gets a fistful of flight vouchers and a tight little smile.

 I get special treatment all the time just by being pleasant in the face of service problems. Because I don't believe the airline is deliberately trying to make me late or that a clerk is truly trying to make me miserable (at least most of the time), I have no need to humiliate the bearer of bad news. A pleasant attitude has gotten me an entire month of long distance wiped off my phone bill, discounts on poorly handled transactions and even extra service or merchandise. It isn't that I roll over and let poor product or service go unnoticed; I point out the error --politely. Isn't it funny how people bend over backward to help correct a mistake when you treat them with respect?

 On the rare occasion this doesn't work, you need to evaluate your goal and decide whether an argument is worth the hassle.

For example, it was 11 p.m when my co-worker and I attempted to check into our hotel near this year's Annual Quality Congress venue in Charlotte, North Carolina. The hotel clerk told us the hotel had overbooked. We pressed a little, but he assured us that all the rooms were occupied and offered to put us into the hotel next door. So we accepted and were in bed before midnight. Another guest, who arrived later, argued with the hotel staff for 45 minutes and was eventually put into a suite. Did he win? Our hotel had better service, cleaner rooms and a free all-you-can eat breakfast buffet. Was it worth 45 minutes of raised blood pressure and a stay in a lesser hotel just to make a point? Frankly, once you turn out the lights, there is no difference between a suite or a storeroom.

 Some time near Christmas, I managed to get in line behind a screamer (actually, more of a loud harrumpher) at a cell phone store. The store had more customers than it could handle, and the sales people were doing their best just to keep up (Cell phone purchase transactions can be lengthy). The man in front of me was obviously tweaked at having to wait 30-45 minutes to be helped and let his opinion be known… loudly and obnoxiously. By the time I got to the salesperson, she was more than ready for a smile.

 I smiled. "Tough day, huh?"

 I had come to buy a cell phone for my daughter. But by the time I left, the salesperson had thrown in an extra hands-free headset and discounted my existing service for the next three months. The screamer walked out with a phone.

 You see, screamers make a crucial error. They forget that a salesperson has the power to not only solve their problems, but also to make them forget the problem even existed. In most retail or service industries, all complaints are covered by a no-questions-asked money-back guarantee. Be nice or be a jerk, the error will be corrected or recompense offered just the same. But what comes next is what makes the difference. The mistake screamers simply don't seem to realize is that the person at whom they're bellowing is, in fact, a person with feelings… and well-developed passive-aggressive skills. Trust me: If you put frontline people on the defensive by getting in their faces, they will go exactly by their customer service training and give you the minimum amount of extra service required to make you shut up and go away --and do it with a smile. You would, too.

 On the other hand, If something goes wrong with your transaction and you put yourself in the position of the person who has to hear your complaint and calmly present your issue, nine times out of 10, you will come away with more than you bargained for. Because service people often deal with irate customers, their first response when they see you approaching with a complaint is to tense, waiting for the inevitable onslaught of invective. If you instead hit them right between the eyes with politeness, they crumble like mama's pie dough.

 I was in the local outlet of a large hardware store chain the other day when a screamer pounced. He was at the checkout stand, and I was in plumbing --about a football field away. It started as a slow angry rumble, key words taking odd bounces around corners --"BOTCHED… IDIOTS… SONS OF… MOTHER…" and built to a pipe-rattling screech about how he will never, ever, not-in-a-million-years shop in this store again. About 15 seconds later, a linebacker wearing a manager's badge came chugging down my aisle headed for the counter.

 Now, I'm sure the customer had a legitimate complaint. And I'm sure he got a discount or all of his money back or something as compensation for his immense "pain and suffering." After all, having the wrong toilet delivered can leave a lifetime of emotional scars. But I'm also pretty sure that's all he got.

 I swept a handful of pipe fittings off the shelf and into my shopping cart and got to the counter as quickly as I could.

 I smiled. "Tough day, huh?"


About the author

 Dirk Dusharme is Quality Digest's technology editor. E-mail him at ddusharme@qualitydigest.com.

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