Branding Beat - Cut Through the Noise

Squeaky Wheels May Get Grease, But Polite Wheels Get Genuine Service

Since the 1800s, we’ve been hearing that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. This idiom is overused but its message is truer now than ever: he who complains long enough will get what he wants. That may be accurate on a surface level, but there’s something to be said about those oft-ignored quiet wheels as well!

Quite frankly, I’ve always hated the squeaky wheel expression. It feeds into the whole “I’m going to kick and scream until I get my way” mentality, which shouldn’t be rewarded for children OR for adults.

Here’s a tidbit that may or may not blow your mind:

You don’t have to be a jerk to get what you want.

I’m not kidding. In fact, you may be surprised at how easy it is to get what you want if you act in a civilized manner!

Here’s something to think about: let’s say that you work in a service field such as customer accounts or even as a retail cashier. An irate client just called you a moron and spent 17 minutes yelling at you about something that’s beyond your control.

What is your first reaction to this situation?

A) “This customer is clearly upset and didn’t mean what they said. I’m going to give them what they want because they deserve it. I’m sure they’re normally pleasant!”

B) “I’m not a moron, I’m just doing my job. I’ll give in to their request because I want to get them out of my hair.”

C) “People are a-holes! I think I’m going to get into the fetal position and cry now…”


Does this look like the face of someone who'd go out of their way for you?

Does this look like the face of someone who’d go out of their way for you?

Unless you’re a pod person or you’re exceptionally talented at rolling with the punches, it’s not likely that you’d answer A and actually mean it. Most customer service staff would probably answer B or C and give in ONLY because they’d like to keep their jobs. What does this mean for the irate customer? She may have gotten what she wanted this time, but she certainly didn’t score any brownie points with the employee. So, the next time that customer visits and needs a special favor, her rep probably won’t go out of the way to assist her unless it’s a requirement. She’ll probably get the bare minimum service possible. (Please note that I’m not advocating poor customer service or bad attitudes here; it’s important to remain calm and objective even when you’re faced with anger or short tempers, and customers should always be taken care of in a polite manner. However, there’s a big difference between giving the customer what she wants because of obligation and giving her what she wants because she actually deserves it. And furthermore, I find it hard to believe that even the peppiest of sales reps would enthusiastically give in to a demand when they’re being personally attacked).

Speaking of personal attacks, do you know the damage that a screaming, irrational person can do to a representative’s self-esteem? Threats and name-calling can zap it down to zero within minutes. Trust me. And bruised egos don’t exactly correlate with special favors, now do they?

Here’s an example of what I mean. On one occasion at a former job, a customer yelled at me and attacked my character so much that it took every shred of my self-preservation to keep a straight face and avoid bursting into tears in front of him. At no point during the incident did I even remotely think of answer A. I wanted to get him out of my face so I could sob in private. So, I begrudgingly gave him the product he wanted and sent him on his way, but not before I became temporarily soured on helping people!

When you treat me nicely, I'll do everything in my power to make you happy - and that's a promise.

When you treat me nicely, I’ll do everything in my power to make you happy – and that’s a promise.

He never did apologize or mention it again, and you can bet your favorite appendage that I never went out of my way to assist him with anything from that point onward. I always treated him with basic courtesy and helped him with a smile plastered on my face, but I felt no desire to tell him about that secret special we were running or that he could avoid extra fees by signing up for a new service. After all, why should I reward his past misconduct by letting him in on secrets that I reserved for the pleasant customers? I have no qualms with exerting extra time and effort to help a customer if they’re kind and rational; in fact, I love helping people who have demonstrated kindness in the past. When you treat me nicely, I’ll do everything in my power to make you happy – and that’s a promise.

If my former customer wanted to get his way and receive the most genuine experience possible, all he had to do was treat me like a human being instead of shouting obscenities at me and calling me an incompetent b*tch in the middle of a crowded business.

Seems simple enough, right? I thought so.

Since I already mentioned one cliché phrase in this post, I may as well include another: you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. In other words…you’ll accomplish more if you stop acting like a jerk. It’s true that those darn squeaky wheels get the grease, but is the grease obtained for the right reasons? Is it worth it to trade the possibility of genuine service for the bare minimum service? Is it more beneficial in the long term to treat people poorly for that instant gratification, or is it better to build a relationship based on mutual respect?


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  1. Mandy Kilinskis

    Couldn’t agree with you more, Jill.

    I can’t even tell you the number of rude people that received decaf espresso drinks under my watch. 🙂

    • amy

      “Nice people get perks, mean people get decaf!” ~ Mandy (6/17/2011) Favorite. Quote. EVER!

    • Peemo

      It seems, quite often, that if the customer can be cool about things during a screw up, the sales rep will reward the customer. I’ve scored many free lattes at Starbucks being a nice guy when things weren’t going well with the register or the machines.

      • Jill Tooley

        True! When I worked at a movie theater a zillion years ago, the nice people would get sweet discounts and/or free drinks for being patient when my register went down in the middle of a set. Just my little way of saying THANKS for not being a d-bag…

  2. amy

    I love this post Jill!! As someone who has worked retail and has dealt with the public for the past four years you can totally catch more flies with honey than with vinegar! The nice people who understood and respected our polices were the ones who’d receive information not widely advertised, like the best days to call for new merchandise. Whereas the customer who would basically throw a temper tantrum because I was following company policy, would get the “I’m sorry there’s nothing more I can do” auto-response. Great Post!!

    PS- I think I’ve had the C) response run through my head a few times too hahahaha

    • Jill Tooley

      Thanks, Amy! Response C happened to me more times than I would have liked, but it’s all part of the experience I suppose. It’s amazing how much things like this toughen us up…

      You know those kids who writhe and scream in the middle of toy aisles until they get their way? They grow up to be like my former customer example…talk about SPOILED people with a swelled sense of entitlement!

  3. JPorretto

    I make it a personal goal to be nice to everybody (have you ever seen me angry?), but I swear some customer service people TRY to make me mad.

    For example, I had a broken cable box that displayed absolutely nothing on screen. I then had to answer somewhere between 8 and 87 questions about what was displayed on screen. What color is the screen? BLACK. What does the guide say? NOTHING. Is it plugged in? YES!!! AHHHH!!! I’m getting worked up just thinking about it.

    • Jill Tooley

      Haha! Of course, if the rep is the one being difficult it changes everything. It takes a lot for me to lose my temper with customer service staff but it has happened in the past. Although, one time I did apologize for being short with a rep and told her I knew it wasn’t her fault…and you know what happened? I got my way. Funny how that works sometimes! 🙂

      • JPorretto

        One time, I told the customer service rep my problem, and all they said was, “Thank you, is there anything else I can help you with today?” as if the conversation was over. I kinda flipped out and said “YOU HAVEN’T DONE ANYTHING YET!” She explained she meant it as “Is that the only issue?” (obvious language barrier incident) and I apologized for being abrasive. It all worked out in the end…

    • Amanda

      This comment makes me think of that black print screen incident we had back in my early days at QLP. I printed it out so I wouldn’t have to answer those questions, lol. But it backfired on me. I’m glad we all got a good laugh out of it though! =)

      • JPorretto

        One new toner cartridge later, yes it was a GREAT laugh =D

  4. Jana Quinn

    Great post, Jill. I really liked the narrative approach you took to let us in on your personal experience. I’m sorry that “person” gave you such a hard time.

    Another option that a customer service representative has is to inform the customer that unless there can be a professional interaction, you will cut off the phone call/interaction by hanging up/walking away. At the level of abuse you described, it would take the most heartless (heartleast?) of managers to punish you for excusing yourself from that kind of situation.

    You’re absolutely right in saying that while someone may be able to benefit from bullying or abuse in the short term, it’s unlikely that they will ever receive what they want (let alone special deals) from that customer service representative outside that interaction. Flattery gets you much farther.

    The “catch more flies with honey than vinegar” expression always makes me think of this comic:

    • Jill Tooley

      Thanks, Jana! I wanted so badly to walk away when he was screaming at me, but I couldn’t. I was the acting supervisor for the day and all responsibility fell to me to handle his situation. It was definitely the worst interaction I’ve ever had – in ALL of my jobs – and I still think about it from time to time. And to make things even worse, every time he came in after that he’d make a point to jab at me somehow. I just ignored the comments, tried to be the better person, and tried to move on, but it was almost as if he was trying to make me burst into tears in front of him. Unfortunately, there was nothing I could do about it because he and his family had an established monetary relationship with the company and losing him would have been detrimental…quite a shame.

      P.S. That comic is great! 🙂

      • Amanda

        It’s too bad to hear stories like this. I’m sorry you went through that Jill, but it sounds like you handled yourself very well! =)

        And really, I think it makes more of a good point and example to stand there and keep a good attitude than walking away or talking back would have. You showed him that you were the bigger person and you were a professional. Well done.

  5. Jenna

    I couldn’t agree with this post more. I worked in retail for a couple of years, and those nasty customers were always the worst. They don’t understand that if the coupon is expired, the computers will NOT take them. Now, if they are calm and reasonable, of course there is a way to enter a different discount. But if the customers got mad at me because THEY couldn’t read the coupon or sign, I would just say there was nothing I could do.

    It was even more annoying when they would ask to talk to a manager about it. I would tell them that my manager was just going to tell them the same thing that I did, but for some reason they didn’t believe me. My managers never honored nasty behavior either. Whereas customers who were polite about it would get an appreciation coupon or a different discount. My policy was pretty much, “the customer is always right…as long as they aren’t rude.”

    Ahhh..retail. The bane of my existence.

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      Yes! I love when they would demand to talk to a manager expecting something different – and it never is. 🙂

    • Jill Tooley

      Haha, thanks Jenna. I completely agree with you! I wish that my managers hadn’t honored nasty behavior, but unfortunately they SO did. I’m willing to ‘fess up if I made a mistake, but when someone is berating me for an “error” that’s out of my hands, that’s a different story. I always try the friendly, pleasant approach and it works pretty darn well for me! 🙂

    • LK

      I’ve experienced this working retail also and completely agree with you. I even make sure to remember these points when I am a customer and they’ve helped me greatly. I don’t know how many times I’ve noticed a coupon has expired, and go to use it to only have them tell me “This has already expired”. I’ll say “Oh I’m sorry I didn’t know” and they’ll normally let me use it anyways. Now if I would have screamed at them and told them it was their fault, maybe the expiration date wasn’t big enough, I’m sure they would have said F you, go shop somewhere else.

      • Jill Tooley

        I would have said F you, Lauren! 😉

        Just kidding, of course…if I had a store you’d get stuff for free all the time! Haha!

  6. Doc

    GREAT Post!!!!! This is something that is relevant in so many daily activities. You have to kill them with kindness. People (myself included) are way more willing to go out of their way for someone who has a genuine sincerity when they speak to you. It’s much easier to tune out someone with a bad attitude. Even if those people get what they want some of the time, Karma will get to them eventually.

    • Jill Tooley

      Thank you, Doc! That’s so true. Sincerity is invaluable and I love to reward people who demonstrate empathy! Gotta love that karma… 😉

  7. Joseph Giorgi

    Naturally, it’s always better to build a relationship with customers and clients based on mutual respect. The problem is when customers come along who have a one-sided view of how customer service is supposed to work. They forget that they have to bring something to the table (specifically, a certain amount of patience and respect) if they want to receive something in return. That’s just common courtesy.

    There’s no getting around the fact that human beings can be selfish, but when it comes to customer service, you just have to roll with those punches to the best of your ability — and I commend anyone who deals with irate customers on a daily basis for their ability to do so. It’s never easy.

    • Jill Tooley

      Alas, someday “common courtesy” will die off completely and we’ll all be fighting each other like beasts…

      Have you ever seen the movie “Waiting”? There’s a good quote in there, it goes something like: “Don’t F— with the people who make your food.” That’s one thing I’ve never understood about rude people in restaurants…aren’t they worried that they’ll end up with something nasty in their burgers? Even if my food order got screwed up beyond all recognition, I’d still address the issue in a tactful manner! Just ask the employees at Taco Bell. 😉

  8. Juliette

    Most excellent post, Jill!! (and I’m in total agreement with you on every point)

    Years ago, within 24 hours of starting work at my first retail/customer service job I immediately became much more understanding and patient as a customer. Knowing what folks in customer service often have to deal with I’ve never wanted to be one of “those” customers ever again (unless rare circumstances called for it).

    One of the tough things that I’ve never managed to quite learn is to not take it personally. For me, working in customer service means investing a part of myself emotionally in order to ensure that I’m giving the best service possible. After all, if I don’t care about a customer and the outcome of their order/purchase/etc. how I can make their experience memorable? The downside of that is very apparent when faced with the situation you described above. (I’ve been in a few “C” situations myself) It’s much harder to not take things personally in such a scenario.

    And as a customer and someone in the customer service field, I agree that nice customers get the extra “perks” and not just in the business. Heck, I once got an autograph from a performer friend of mine and mailed it to a customer because he was a huge fan of that performer. Just because he was always pleasant to work with. (My customer later called and left me a long voicemail just saying “thank you”. I think I still have that saved.) You can definitely catch more flies with honey. 🙂

    • Jill Tooley

      Thanks so much, Juliette! I’ve gotten more patient over the years as well. Not that temper tantrums ever came into play in the past, but you know what I mean. It’s tough to brush things off and move on, especially if you’re sensitive in the first place (guilty!). We have to gradually build up our tolerance and learn to adjust when we’re faced with spite or irrationality…but it’s SO hard!

      You got a performer’s autograph for a customer just because they were nice to you? That’s AWESOME. That person is never going to forget you, ever! 😀

  9. cyberneticSAM

    Wow, this is like the Ghandi blog post about how to be business saavy when it comes to dealing with the hard parts of working in customer service… This zen quote would fit perfectly in this blog: “It takes a wise man to learn from his mistakes, but an even wiser man to learn from others.” Great post, oh wise bloggist! (Well, you are not a robot priest, but you could be if you wanted!) 🙂

    • Jill Tooley

      Aw, thanks! I wouldn’t go that far…zen didn’t play a big part in my life the day that incident happened…but thank you for the great quote and feedback!!

  10. Ci'mron Renee Jus'tese

    This also happens to customers / delivers to retail outlets. I was makeing a delivery with mine rig one day, when I entered shipping an receiving several men an one very upset reciever. I being a women did not help, the jeers, an whistles, (well go over my head now) but when I approched window to give paper work, this man yells what do you want, why are you here, I look at him, an say”ok, I let you calm down, I’ll be back in 10 min”. so I left. Waited outside, returned again, was yelled at again, I repeated the same statement an left. Ok this seems maddening but..this time I knew it got there attention, all of them.
    I returned one more time, only this time was different. They all stood quietly, an watched as I entered again. Went to window, an the man then asked me..”Why do you keep doing that ?”. My reply was, ” I’m only attempting to make a delivery, of a product you needed an ordered”. “I can just as easily take it back to mine company, which when you do relize you need it, you will have to pay more for it”. “So.. I get payed by the hour, an I can do this all day, or deliver another to a more mannered individual, because ” I ” did not cause your uncomfortableness today, so……”. At that point the man smiled, gave me a door number to back up to, an was asked to unhook rig from trailer an come back to office. I did so. An when I returned, this man gave me a address, a credit card, a hug, an told me breakfast was on him for reminding him that not everyone is illed mannered. I did go, an when I returned, all these other drivers could do was just smile. I now am the sole delivery driver that is requested to come back to this company each month. I also, am for many more. I believe in good customer relations, on both sides. An was brought up with great mannamers which I practice each day. I also, smile.. which goes a long way, even when others are unsettleing. For we all have been given a gift, Freedom to make a choice an a difference in this world.

    • Jill Tooley

      Hi, Ci’mron! Thanks for your comment!

      It sounds like you did the right thing in that situation. You really got their attention by telling them that you’d come back when they were more patient and willing to cooperate with you! And I guarantee that they’ll never forget that day you first met them – you probably taught them a thing or two about attitude. It’s so refreshing to hear that they were kind to you the third time around and that they now request you at their company. You showed them you’re tough and that you don’t respond to unpleasantness. Great job!

      You also said: “We all have been given a gift – freedom to make a choice and a difference in this world.” This is so true. Even if people are unhappy with their lives, they always have a choice to make things better. It’s up to us to make a difference in not only our lives but in the lives of the people around us. Thanks for the reminder of that, for sharing your story, and for visiting our blog! Come back anytime!

  11. Vida F.

    I have to agree that being nice and not rude is the way to proceed in most situations. But, I have to disagree that because you are being the squeaky wheel that it means you are throwing a temper tantrum. Sometimes, you have to be the persistent, consistent voice when there is a continuous problem that no one even in a position of authority seems to be able to resolve. Being squeaky, does not mean you have to necessarily be considered rude. This can still be done in an appropriate civil manner.

  12. Summer Harris

    I have to disagree with you. From my own personal experience with both UPS and FedEx, I can assure you that being nice will get you nowhere except waiting days for them to clear up their screw ups. Whenever I have had problems with a package being delivered and been nice to the customer reps, I ended up waiting days to finally get my packages. However, when I became the squeaky wheel, I got my packages delivered that day. Sometimes you have to be the squeaky wheel or you’re going to be at their mercy and whenever they decide to get around to your problem they may or may not fix it.

  13. Charlie

    I’m afraid this misses the point. The squeaky wheel is not referring to the person but rather the problem. If a problem occurs and nobody says anything about it, the unscrupulous manager will ignore it, typically to avoid the (short-term) embarrassment of admitting that the problem exists in the first place. But if enough people – even one person – brings it to their attention, then the bad manager will fear that his boss will hear about it and tend to it.

    History is full of ordinary people who exposed wrong-doing and changed society forever. In 1955 Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus and started the civil rights movement. In 2013 computer programmer Edward Snowden exposed unconstitutional surveillance being conducted by the United States, bringing it to the attention of the whole world.

    These are huge examples, but it occurs at all levels of society. Companies used to have “Complaint Boxes” but since 911 people have become so paranoid that any kind of expression about unresolved problems is often treated as being subversive activity.

    “Political dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” – Thomas Jefferson (or earlier)

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