How Should Companies Talk to Customers Online?
Article

How Should Companies Talk to Customers Online?

The words service agents use to engage customers often end up backfiring.

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  • Innovative
  • Applicable
  • Eye Opening

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Customer service agents have taken to heart advice to say “you” as often as possible – and to eradicate using “I” – in the belief that these speech patterns are good for business. In this conventional wisdom–busting paper for the MIT Sloan Management Review, three Canadian marketing professors – Brent McFerrin, Sarah G. Moore and Grant Packard – overturn decades of customer service training by reporting on research that shows digital service agents’ use of the word “I” can significantly boost customer satisfaction and sales – while their use of “you” can backfire.

Summary

Customer service speech has become significantly different from the language of everyday conversations: Service agents have taken on board advice to say “you” frequently and to avoid the word “I” at all costs. The words “you” and “we” appear in customer service settings at much higher rates than they do in normal speech. Agents are schooled to believe that these language habits increase customer satisfaction. But research on word use in digital customer service interactions shows otherwise: The conventional wisdom can produce unexpected effects and can even backfire.

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About the Authors

Canadian academics Brent McFerran, Sarah G. Moore and Grant Packard are associate professors of marketing at Simon Fraser University, the University of Alberta and Wilfrid Laurier University, respectively.


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