The retail world abounds with catch-phrases, such as: “Say it with a smile.” “Never say no.” “Sorry is a magic word.” “A person’s own name is the sweetest sound in any language.”

But do these and other long-held tips about how to speak to customers really work?

According to the Harvard Business Review, natural language processing, computational linguistics, and psychology experiments have now uncovered the true importance of subtle variations in how customers talk to front-line employees.

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

1. Speak as an individual, not part of a team

While companies and employees believe they should refer to themselves as “we” when talking to customers, and actually do so in practice, 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 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 per cent.

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 “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.”

Employees’ linguistic mimicry creates affiliation with the customer and increases customer satisfaction. Rapport can also be created by asking employees to imagine the customer as similar to themselves (e.g. shared background, personal, or business interests), even when they may be thousands of miles apart.

3. Try to 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. Take charge

However, 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.

5. Move from relating to solving

After an initial period in which the employee demonstrates their empathy for the customer’s needs, customers want employees to linguistically “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. 

Automated text analysis of other conversations found that 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).

6. Be specific

Customers also see employees as more helpful when they use more concrete language. Doing so signals to the customer that the agent is psychologically “closer” to the customer’s personal needs.

One retailer found that using more concrete terms when talking to customers was linked to a 4 per cent lift in customer purchases after talking to the employee.

7. Don’t beat around the bush

Subtle variations in the words used to endorse a product or action can also 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 recommender, a perception that could be particularly important in personal selling contexts.


As more and more customer conversations move online or to other message-based media, the importance of utilising language properly is greater than ever.

The seven suggestions note above offer some simple, actionable, and nearly cost-free solutions to improve the speaking terms by which companies engage their customers.

In other words, you can make your words count.


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