The Magic Placebo-stat


I have worked for many years in the air conditioning business, and I have had to deal with a lot of difficult problems.  Electrical issues that boggle the mind, programming sequences that make my hair hurt to think about, even refrigerant flow restrictions that seemed to defy physics. However, the most difficult problems revolve around people not machines.  Anyone in customer service knows exactly what I am talking about.  A repair man is a customer service representative; he is the middle man between the customer and the machine that is not performing as the customer wishes it would perform.  Note I said wishes, not needs. 


I wrote a post a while back – Call of the Whiner.  I have a theory about where these creatures come from.  I have also found a way to identify the Whiner-bird, and I will share a few methods of dealing with them. 


Beware: I am not the only one using these techniques, I am simply publishing what I find useful. 


A Whiner-bird is a person at work who complains about everything to deflect from their own problems.  These people are miserable, unhappy, and disgruntled.  Generally people who are miserable at work are that way because they feel they have no control over their environment. Their medical benefits, pay, desk, computer, phone, breaks, job title, boss, everything is under control of someone else.  They feel helpless at work, miserable and always looking for something they can control for themselves. 


I worked for many years responding to complaints about air quality and temperature in cubeville.  Most people who read this are quite familiar with what a cubeville is, but for those not initiated, it is a village of cubicles set up in a large office, sometimes this is also called a Cube farm, or cube land.   Usually the office has hundreds of cubicles clustered in a maze with little cubical highways and side streets. 




Many of these office spaces are large enough create their own climate.  Try as they might system designers can not plan for everything, so every office has its own hot and cold areas.  Technicians who respond to these office ‘comfort’ calls can eventually get these anomalies ironed out, but there is always the isolated areas that may be one or two degrees out of spec with the rest of the office. This is generally not much of an issue. The real trouble begins when the office Whiner-birds get together do “do something” about their comfort issues.  Likely these people usually sit far apart from each other.  The complaints usually start in the break room, coffee, or water cooler:


“Its literally freezing in my cube, is it just me or is everyone cold?”

“You’re lucky, you can always get a space heater, my cube is like an oven”

“Oh yea, mine is like working in a wind tunnel, the air is so fierce it dries my eyes out”

“I wish I had some air, its so stuffy in my cube I had to put a fan on my monitor”


And so on.



After years of responding to “Comfort” calls I have developed ways to find these trouble makers. I can now walk into a building, which I have never visited before, and spot the Whiner-birds simply by looking at their cubical.


Here are some signs to look for to find the elusive Whiner-bird:

  • Ergonomic foot rest.
  • Desk lamp with a dimmer.
  • Strips of paper taped to the air register on the ceiling.
  • Strips of paper taped to their monitor.
  • Bonsai plants, waterfalls, Zen gardens with little rakes, worry stones, and other knick-knacks to relieve stress.
  • Collections of trolls, finger puppets, dolls, army men, toys, etc neatly arranged all over the cubical.
  • Cardboard taped around the monitor to form a shield.
  • Cardboard taped to the cubical to form a tent.
  • Bead curtains.
  • Appliances in the cubical like refrigerators, toasters, microwaves, popcorn makers, pizza ovens, coffee makers, and bagel ovens.

Some offices are literally infested with Whiner-birds, while other offices are sorely lacking.  I believe that the trend of people working from home is a forced Whiner-bird migration. It’s a win-win situation, however, there are way too many near sighted managers who do not see the big picture.  Sorry, I got off track for a moment there. 


Many srvice technicians, with less experience, view these people with apprehension and not a small amount of distain.  To your average service technician these people are the one and only reason that their job is not perfect.  If it weren’t for customers, service jobs would be a great career.  I, however, have found that the Whiner-bird is an opportunity to have a little psychological fun.  Ok, I will admit it… a lot of fun.


There are three methods to dealing with calls from the Whiner-bird.  Note this only applies when there are no real problems.  If something is broken fix it first. All these strategies are designed to give the customer the illusion of control.  Remember Whiner-birds are the way they are because they feel they do not have enough control over their environment.


First is what I call the “Is it better now?” Strategy. 

It works like this: 

The technician visits the customer in his or her in person and listens patiently to the complaint from the Whiner-bird.  Then he comments on the lovely collection of trolls and asks if the ergonomic keyboard and mouse pad helps.  The technician promises to make some changes and come back a bit later to check in.  The service tech is now free to go about his day fixing broken machinery and solving real problems.  The key is to check back on the customer a few times during the week telling the customer that he worked real hard on the system and made some tiny adjustments.  “Is it better now?”  It is remarkable how well this works.


Second is the “Help me solve your problem” Strategy.  This is where the technician asks the customer to write down on a piece of paper the exact time of day when they are uncomfortable and what they feel is wrong.  Tell them that the system is complicated and dynamic and it could take weeks to find the root of the problem.  Usually they give up writing things down after a few days and are too embarrassed to give the tech an empty list.


The last method is the most drastic and only when all others fail. 

Install the Magic Placebo-stat.  This is a normal looking thermostat with a temperature display and an adjustment dial.  It looks just like ones people have in their homes.  The only differance is that it is simply attached to the wall and doesn’t do anything.  All a tech has to do is wait until no one is around and stick it to the wall near the Whiner-bird.  I have even uses some with velcro on the back so they stick to cloth covered cubicals. 

The results are amazing.  When given something to fiddle with the Whiner-birds focus all their attention on the new thermostat.  They now have the illusion of control.  This worked so well in one cube-ville that the office manager actually placed a work request to have a cover placed over the thermostat to prevent people from adjusting it.  Apparently there were some heated arguments around who keeps changing the settings.


Extreme caution must be used when installing the Magic Placebo-stat anywhere near electrical engineers. 

But that’s another story.





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3 thoughts on “The Magic Placebo-stat

  1. jimsmuse says:

    My telephone answering service has quite a few Heat/AC repair companies as customers, and we were on the “front lines” when a recent 95+ degree heat wave arrived in NJ a few weekends ago. After doing this job for so many years, it still amazes me what some people consider an “emergency”.

    As a telephone operator, I have the ability to put “whiner-birds” on hold for a few moments, snicker, and then reconnect and attempt to collect information about an “emergency” with a straight face…but I honestly don’t know how you can listen to some of these complaints in person without laughing out loud.

    A career in customer service can be a bitch sometimes, but you must admit that the more you deal with the public, the larger your collection of stories about how dumb people can be will get!

  2. Burrowowl says:

    Cardboard tents? Really? I do believe you’d get yourself written up in a heartbeat trying to pull that kind of nonsense at my office. But then, you can see from our lobby into our cubefarm, so we don’t want things looking like a shanty-town.

    Asking the person reporting a problem to carefully log the issue is a great screening strategy for problems of all sorts. A person that is genuinely worked up about whatever the problem is will actually take down the information and get it to you. Maybe there’s a real problem that can actually be solved. Somebody that’s just complaining to complain is a little less likely to actually do the leg work, but now that ball’s in his court.

  3. Oh man! I should have thought of that back when I worked as the “goto guy” in my particular cube-hell. I was the Director of I.T. (to be honest, I was the entire department) and some how, I suspect because I worked with cables and wasn’t afraid of the server, I was put in control of dealing with the thermostat.

    My descent in to Hadies came in the form of a directive from the owner that people needed to stop turning up the heat. She put me in charge of this.

    “Ok, I need some money from the petty account. I need to go the the hardware store.”
    “For what?”
    “One of those lockable thermostat covers.”
    “ABSOLUTELY NOT! We will not treat the other people here like children!”
    “But yet, they keep turning up the heat, even after you’ve told them not to.”
    “Yes. Find another way.”
    *inside my own head* “AAAAAAAAAGH!”

    Turkish Prawn
    Turkish Prawn

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