Words to Use – and to Avoid – When Talking to Customers
Leadership & Organizational Development Manager
Learning & Development, Ethos Veterinary Health
Posted on 2019-04-16 in Client Care
Welcome to our first installment of a resource specifically designed for client care team members but are also a great reference for veterinarians & veterinary nurses.
In these quarterly posts, you will receive information and training to help support you in your growth and development in your important roles in our hospitals.
In each edition, we will look at the key findings of a peer-reviewed article and present them to you in a meaningful and immediately applicable way.
Let’s start with the Harvard Business Review article, “The Words and Phrases to Use – and to Avoid – When Talking to Customers.”
The key to any successful relationship is effective communication. However, companies are frequently teaching their employees to use language that does not stand up to scientific scrutiny. Fortunately, new research offers simple, actionable, and nearly cost-free solutions to improve the communication between the company and their customers.
While using words that establish a more personal rapport with customers is important out of the gate, more sophisticated analysis of the language of customer interactions suggests that once they’ve shown they’re listening, front-line employees should quickly shift gears towards language that signals a more assertive, “take charge” attitude.
Outlined below are the key points, associated practice and application questions.
1. Speak as an individual
While companies and employees believe they should refer to themselves as “we” when talking to customers, and actually do so in practice, our research shows this practice is less than ideal.
In a series of controlled studies, company representatives who referred to themselves in the singular voice (e.g., “I”, “me”, or “my”) were perceived to be acting and feeling more on behalf of customers than those who adopted less personal plural pronouns (“we” or “our”).
For example, saying “How can I help you?” outperforms, “How can we help you?”
2. Share the same words.
People who mimic the language of the person they’re interacting with are trusted and liked more, whether this mimicry entails how they talk (pronouns like “I” or “we,” articles like “it” or “a”) or what they talk about (nouns like “car,” verbs like “drive,” adjectives like “fast”).
For example, in response to a customer inquiry such as “How long will Marty’s blood draw take?” a client care team member would be better off saying, “Marty’s blood draw should take less than 10 minutes,” rather than “Marty will have his blood pulled within the next 10 minutes.”
3. First, relate.
Researchers performing automated text analysis of hundreds of airline customer service transcripts found that, consistent with consumer self-reports in prior research, expressing empathy and caring through “relational” words was critical, at least in the first (opening) part of service interactions.
Relational words are verbs and adverbs that demonstrate concern (e.g., please, thank you, sorry) as well as signal agreement (e.g., yes, uh huh, okay).
While this finding may not seem surprising, what may be for some is that front-line employees shouldn’t necessarily offer a caring, empathetic touch over the entirety of the interaction.
4. Move from relating to solving.
The same research that examined airline check-in service transcripts found that after an initial period in which the employee demonstrates their empathy for the customer’s needs, hearing employees say “sorry” and other “relating” words had little effect on customer satisfaction.
Instead, automated text analysis revealed that customers wanted employees to “take charge” of the conversation.
Specifically, this research suggested a shift to “solving” verbs (e.g., get, go call, do, put, need, permit, allow, resolve) as the interaction unfolds was an important predictor of customer satisfaction.
5. Be specific.
Analysis of the language used in telephone and email customer service interactions at two major retailers found that after the introductory phase of a conversation, when agents must show they are listening, customers see employees as more helpful when they use more concrete language.
For example, for a clothing retailer, “white turtleneck” is more concrete than “shirt,” and “sneakers” is more concrete than “shoes.”
Lab experiments currently underway suggest that using more concrete language signals to the customer that the agent is psychologically “closer” to the customer’s personal needs.
6. Don’t beat around the bush.
Analysis of the language used in consumer and expert product reviews — plus lab studies — suggest that subtle variations in the words used to endorse a product or action can have substantial effects.
For example, people are more persuasive when they use words that explicitly endorse the product to the customer (“I suggest trying this one” or “I recommend this album”) rather than language that implicitly does so by sharing the speaker’s personal attitude (“I like this one” or “I love this album”) towards a product or service.
This is because explicit endorsements signal both confidence and expertise on the part of the person recommending, a perception that could be particularly important in personal selling contexts.