Why Language Matters in Customer Service

by Martha Brooke | October 19, 2011

80% of CEOs believe their CX is superior. Only 8% of their customers agree. That's a lot of bad Customer Listening. Let's raise the bar!
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Shep Hyken’s reflections on his hotel experience illustrate a common customer service problem.

What Happened

Shep reserved a room, but when he got to the hotel it wasn’t ready, so the front desk worker offered to “downgrade” him to a room that was already prepared. No one is ever happy about a “downgrade,” especially when it comes to an unknown hotel room. Will the room be a closet? The bed a cot? But what rightfully surprised Shep was that the “downgraded” room was nearly identical to the one he originally reserved. So why didn’t the associate describe the room as a virtual lookalike? Why promote the negative when the positive is right at hand?

In subtle ways, frontline employees can undermine an otherwise excellent customer experience. And this slow erosion of the company’s image isn’t captured by big-picture metrics like Net Promoter Scores or overall satisfaction. If Shep had filled out a satisfaction survey at the end of his stay, he would probably have said he was “somewhat” or “very” satisfied, assuming nothing else went wrong. If he were just the average customer, he probably wouldn’t even have thought to take note of the rep’s use of “downgrade.” But it still impacted his perception of the company.

Details Matter

Some might say that small details like word choices don’t matter, that as long as the customer didn’t complain about them it’s not a problem. But Zaltman’s studies, amongst others, find that while customers don’t take note of very much about their buying experiences, small cues have a huge impact on customers’ unarticulated feelings and repurchase rates.

Harvard Business School: The Subconscious Mind of the Consumer (And How To Reach It): “95 percent of our purchase decision making takes place in the subconscious mind.”

Moment-by-moment details are critical to a company’s sales success, so it’s hard to understand why managers tend to rely on overly-simplified averages that don’t represent the lived experience.

What to Do

To maximize customer loyalty, ask fine-grain questions like “how many positive words do our reps use in each customer interaction?” Or, “how often to associates use language that supports or tarnishes our brand?” Set expectations for how associates should act to align with your most critical objectives. That way, instead of some amorphous average score, you get a clear, actionable picture of what’s going on on your frontline and what your reps need to do to make it better.

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