How to Talk to Customers photo

How to Talk to Customers

The key to any successful relationship is effectivecommunication. In the business world, this means trying to understand whatconsumers and clients are saying, and responding to them in ways that persuade.

It is now clear, that some of the time-honored truthsof customer service interactions fail to hold up to scientific scrutiny. Youcan, for example, saying “sorry” to a customer too many times. Even if you’re amember of the company’s team, it is often better to say “I” than “we.” And notevery piece of communication needs to be perfect; sometimes, a few mistakesproduces a better result than flawlessness.

Here is the latest on the fast-growing, insightful,and sometimes surprising new world of business language research.

Be Human…

The body of research analyzing language use betweenemployees and customers, suggests a personal touch is indeed crucial.

Speak as an individual, not part of ateam. For instance, saying “How can Ihelp you?” outperforms “How can we help you?”. For one company, an analysis ofover a thousand email interactions with customers found that switching to firstperson singular pronouns could lead to a potential sales increase of over 7%.

Share the same words. People who mimic the language of the person they’reinteracting with are trusted and liked more, whether this mimicry entails how theytalk (pronouns like “I” or “we,” articles like “it” or “a”) or what theytalk about (nouns like “car,” verbs like “drive,” adjectives like “fast”). Forexample, in response to a customer inquiry such as “Will my shipment arrivesoon?” an agent would be better off saying “Yes, your shipment will arrivetomorrow,” rather than “Yes, it’s being delivered tomorrow.”

First, relate. Expressing empathy and caring through “relational”words is critical, at least in the first(opening) part of service interactions. Relational words are verbs and adverbsthat demonstrate concern (e.g., please, thank you, sorry) as well as signalagreement (e.g., yes, uh huh, okay). While this may not seem surprising, whatmay be for some is that front-line employees shouldn’t necessarily offer acaring, empathetic touch over the entirety of the interaction.

… And Then Take Charge

More sophisticated analysis of the language ofcustomer interactions suggests that once they’ve shown they’re listening,front-line employees should quickly shift gears towards language that signals amore assertive, “take charge” attitude.

Move from relating to solving. After an initial period in which the employeedemonstrates their empathy for the customer’s needs, hearing employees say“sorry” and other “relating” words had little effect on customer satisfaction. Customersatisfaction is higher when front-line employees dynamically shift fromdeferent words (e.g., afraid, mistake, pity) to more dominant language (e.g.,must, confirm, action).

Be specific. Customers see employees as more helpful when theyuse more concrete language. For example, for a builder or tradesman, “expansionjoint” is more effective than “crack”.

Don’t beat around the bush. Subtle variations in the words used to endorse aproduct or action can have substantial effects. For example, people are more persuasive when theyuse words that explicitly endorse the product to the customer (“I suggesttrying this one” or “I recommend this paint”) rather than language thatimplicitly does so by sharing the speaker’s personal attitude (“I like thisone” or “I love this paint”) towards a product or service. This is becauseexplicit endorsements signal both confidence and expertise on the part of therecommender, a perception that could be particularly important in personalselling contexts.

As more and more consumer-firm conversation movesonline or to other text-based media, the importance of utilizing languageproperly is greater than ever.

Adapted HBR Oct 2018Moore, McFerran & Packard