How to Talk to Customers photo

How to Talk to Customers

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

It is now clear, that some of the time-honored truths of customer service interactions fail to hold up to scientific scrutiny. You can, for example, saying “sorry” to a customer too many times. Even if you’re a member of the company’s team, it is often better to say “I” than “we.” And not every piece of communication needs to be perfect; sometimes, a few mistakes produces 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 between employees and customers, suggests a personal touch is indeed crucial.

Speak as an individual, not part of a team. For instance, saying “How can I help you?” outperforms “How can we help you?”. For one company, an analysis of over a thousand email interactions with customers found that switching to first person 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’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 “Will my shipment arrive soon?” an agent would be better off saying “Yes, your shipment will arrive tomorrow,” 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 adverbs that demonstrate concern (e.g., please, thank you, sorry) as well as signal agreement (e.g., yes, uh huh, okay). While this 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.

… And Then Take Charge

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.

Move from relating to solving. 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. Customer satisfaction is higher when front-line employees dynamically shift from deferent words (e.g., afraid, mistake, pity) to more dominant language (e.g., must, confirm, action).

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

Don’t beat around the bush. 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 paint”) rather than language that implicitly does so by sharing the speaker’s personal attitude (“I like this one” or “I love this paint”) towards a product or service. This is because explicit endorsements signal both confidence and expertise on the part of the recommender, a perception that could be particularly important in personal selling contexts.

As more and more consumer-firm conversation moves online or to other text-based media, the importance of utilizing language properly is greater than ever.

Adapted HBR Oct 2018 Moore, McFerran & Packard