Accounting For The Squeaky Wheel

This has been on my mind for a while, likely because of how big of an issue it is for me. I didn’t realize how big of an issue it is though until I started doing some research.

I came across the most eloquent description:

It means that if you bitch loud enough, you’ll eventually get your way.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, phrase, and you run a business you should acclimate yourself with it quickly. As an entrepreneur, as your business grows you will have to contend with it on a daily basis. I find it a very dangerous dilemma.

I actually associate it with the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80 – 20 rule, but in the sense that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the cause. In this case, I’d argue that while similar, I often find the squeaky wheel to have a very different distribution, and effects can come from an even smaller subset, say 5%.

This appears to be especially true in today’s businesses in which you have a service component. Say for instance you have customer support of some kind. You might enjoy 95% satisfaction rates, and yet that 5% dissatisfaction could be the most devastating and time consuming. Mostly because they tend to scream the loudest.

The effects today are further amplified by Social Media. Have you noticed how quick your clients are to bash you when something is going horribly wrong, and how slow they are to acknowledge the positive aspect of things. I myself fall victim to this with the tools and technologies I use on a daily basis. When things just work you have no compelling reason to speak up, but then they crash, your emotions get the best of you and just have to tell the world how you have been wronged.

I think it’s challenging for business owners to evenly balance the importance of a squeaky wheel. On one hand, you have to be mindful of the issue, is it a chronic issue worth investigating, or whether it’s nothing more than a distraction. This process is compounded by a processes of desensitization that seems to occur as you deal with it on a more routine basis.

I find that as you get more immersed with it you really take two distinct approaches:

  1. You see it so much you lose focus and forget to weigh it’s true value
  2. You see it so much it begins to drive your direction, affecting you mentally and physically.

In either case it can be devastating for you and your business swinging too far in either direction.

Accounting for the Squeaky Wheel

I’ve started to apply the following steps when dealing with a squeaky wheel. It’s not exactly a linear process, but it can be if you desire it to be.

1. Can I quantify the Noise

This is my attempt to measure how big of an issue it is. To do this you have to put aside your emotional response and desire to respond and you have to really understand the issue.

A couple of questions I ask myself:

  1. Have there been other complaints?
  2. If so, how many? Over what period?
  3. What are the common denominators with the complaints?
  4. What is the real issue? This is important, what they are complaining about sometimes isn’t the issue.

If you realize that a large percentage of your audience is complaining, then that’s likely a good sign you have a problem. I subscribe to the 90 / 10 rule here, but not the Pareto Principle, in this case I subscribe to the rule in which I listen and focus on the 90%. Sometimes that last 10% has a way of sucking the life out of you.

2. Can I empathize with the Issue?

Just because you can’t gauge a large impact, in terms of audience, it doesn’t mean it’s worth dismissing. Every squeaky wheel is worth looking at and weighing based on the circumstances. The one question I find myself asking is, Can I empathize with the user?. What if I were this user, can I see it from their perspective, and while others are not complaining, would it improve their experience?

It doesn’t mean that empathizing will render the results the individual is looking for, but sometimes it can and sometimes it can lead to a more amicable solution.

3. How annoyed am I by the Issue?

I think this is an important question to ask yourself. If your annoyance level is high, then question becomes why? Is it because of some bias to the issue? Is it a known issue? If so, why does it still exist? Is it something you’ve chosen not to address? If so, then is there some way to more clearly articulate this to avoid it being an issue in the future?

4. Is it big enough an issue that it requires tactical adjustments?

Sometimes squeaky wheels can be nothing more than an annoyance, clients being rude, poor communication between staff and clients, etc… but sometimes they can be very valuable to your business. You have to learn to decipher these, no, there is no secret solution to the process.

Be mindful however that, that is not always the case. Sometimes you make tactical adjustments when it’s really not necessary. And there in lies the issue with the squeaky wheel.

Leave a Comment