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The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results

Have you ever noticed how good you feel when something gets resolved after complaining about it?  Conversely, if a solution is not reached do you oftentimes feel worse than you did before?

Be it in our personal or professional lives, or an issue with a product or service, complaining can be a useful means to an end.  Whether or not we reach the resolution we are seeking is very much dependent on how skilled we are at complaining, according to first-time author Guy Winch, Ph.D.  With obvious reference to the book’s title, The Squeaky Wheel, he says, “We have become a nation of squeakers who face daily frustrations, resentments, and irritations without a clue as to how to address them effectively.”

It seems that the “functional aspect” of complaining — to obtain positive results from a negative situation – has long since fallen by the wayside as we more often than not just give in to merely acquiring the “emotional perk” produced as the byproduct of venting.  While releasing pent-up emotions in a variety of situations is vital to our overall well-being, complaining effectively is presented in The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships, and Enhance Self-Esteem as the key to achieving resolutions to our complaints.  Drawing on cases from his own psychotherapy practice in which he uses patients’ complaints as a therapeutic tool, Winch also references studies conducted by Martin Seligman and John A. Goodman as supporting evidence in explaining how and why we complain.  Seligman is widely accepted as the father of positive psychology and Goodman is in the business of helping companies improve their customers’ experience.

Although the portions of the book dealing with complaining in our personal relationships were both motivating and informative, what was particularly fascinating were those dealing with corporate mindsets, call centers, and customer service.  Readers are given a look inside these areas and you come to realize how customer service representatives on the other end of the telephone line — or the “societal punching bags of the 21st century” as he refers to them — are restricted in what they can and cannot do to help you resolve a complaint.  They seldom have the power we perceive or wish them to have.  Having that perspective is valuable in structuring a plan of action next time you next set out to resolve a complaint over the phone.

The majority of The Squeaky Wheel is devoted to helping individuals resolve their grievances with friends and family, and in their roles as consumers.  However, the corporate world is not left without good advice as well — in the form of eight steps taken from the book A Complaint Is A Gift – to help ensure their customers’ complaints are handled effectively.  Winch believes companies should be held to these standards and actually uses them as a checklist when speaking on the telephone with customer service representatives.

As a psychotherapist who “dabbles in stand-up comedy,” The Squeaky Wheel‘s author frequently uses humor in his writing.  In one example, the parts of an effective complaint letter are detailed in what he calls a “complaint sandwich” and it can be used regardless of the recipient or type of industry to which a written complaint is directed.  Using one of his own letters to illustrate the analogy, the top slice of bread consists of an “ear-opener” which is designed to voice the complaint in a way that does not make the recipient automatically go on the defensive.  The “meat” of the sandwich is where your request for resolution is served up more as asking for a favor rather than demanding action.  Finally, the bottom slice of bread, called the “digestive,” serves to make the complaint more palatable to the recipient, thereby increasing their motivation to help.  While offered by Winch as a way to voice a written complaint, it seems it would be valuable in the airing of a verbal complaint as well.

Prior to reading this book, I would not have thought of complaining as a tool for social activism; however, this facet too is described in The Squeaky Wheel.  In just one of several cases in point shared with readers, the father of a soldier killed in an Iraqi bomb blast learned his son’s remains would be shipped home from a military base in the cargo hold of an airplane, met not by a military honor guard but by civilian baggage handlers.  Adding insult to injury, the casket – sans the American flag for which his son died – was to be loaded by forklift onto a luggage trolley and transferred to the airline’s freight area to wait for the family’s arrival.  By channeling his outrage at the disrespect being shown his son, he proceeded to identify who had the power to make changes and complained to them directly.  This set into motion a chain of events and decisions that modified procedures for how the remains of our soldiers are handled so they are treated with honor and respect.

One thing I personally would like to have seen addressed in this book is the fact there is always a possibility that, no matter what you do or how effectively you complain, the fruits of your labor will never become a resolution.  At what point do you reach that “aha!” moment and give yourself permission to stop beating your head against the proverbial wall?  In those hopefully few cases, at what point should you realize that continuing on will not produce the desired result and you should walk away from it satisfied that you did all you could?  Even optimism and perseverance will sometimes not be enough.  Knowing when to abandon the pursuit of a complaint resolution would have been valuable information to impart as well.

The Squeaky Wheel is chock full of examples of both effective and ineffective complaining, and learning to differentiate the two can dramatically change the way we approach an issue or concern so that success is ensured.  By educating ourselves in ways to become partners rather than adversaries in complaint resolution we also receive a remedial class in civility, and these two lessons are the very best reasons to read The Squeaky Wheel.

The Squeaky Wheel:  Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships, and Enhance Self-Esteem

Walker Publishing Company

304 pages


The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results

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Twila Klein

APA Reference
Klein, T. (2016). The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 22, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 May 2016
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 May 2016
Published on Psych All rights reserved.