I or we? How should you talk to customers?

‘You talkin’ to me?’ goes the legendary Robert De Niro line. In the contact centre, it’s pretty apparent who your team is talking to – they are talking to a customer or to a prospect.

Let’s turn this around for a second and think from the customer’s perspective. Who are your customers talking to? Are they talking to an organisation, a brand or to an actual human being? This is a decision that you make as an organisation and is apparent by how the agent communicates with your customers.

So, when your team are going through the motions, how do they talk to your customers?

Do they say things like “I am sorry to hear you are having this challenge” or “I will do what I can to support you”, or are they more likely to say “We want to make sure we resolve your issues” and “We hope we’ll see you again soon”?

You may think this is just semantics, but exactly what is said sends a powerful message to your customers and your agents. Are they acting as themselves when they talk to your customers? Or, as an agent, acting on behalf of your organisation?

Believe it or not, this matters. A lot. And scientific research helps illustrate why.

The role of discourse perspective in improving your business

In 2018, an expert team of researchers composed of Grant Packard, Sarah G. Moore, and Brent McFerran wrote a paper titled (I’m) Happy to Help (You): The Impact of Personal Pronouns Use in Customer-Firm Interactions, published in the Journal of Marketing Research. The paper had one focus: to understand the role personal pronouns play in the interactions between a company and its customers.

The research reported that the most common approach amongst customer support leaders is to advocate the use of the plural pronoun ‘We’. Data analysis showed that this pronoun is far more common in a support context than in a natural conversation.

It turns out this is not what customers want! Customers report a higher satisfaction with their interaction when the agent uses the ‘I’ pronoun rather than ‘We’, or no pronoun at all. What’s more, customers also then demonstrate higher purchasing intentions towards the brands’ products.

The research implies that switching your narrative away from ‘We’ and towards ‘I’ represents an extremely quick and easy win to impact your organisation’s performance.

Researchers posit that these positive reactions happen because “I” signals to the customer that the agent is taking personal ownership of the situation and is personally empathetic. As you already know, empathy is crucial to delivering an exceptional experience to your caller.

However, the researchers found there was next to no effect on customers’ perceptions, and future behaviours in one crucial situation: if the customer has other clues of empathy and empowerment. This simply contributes to highlighting how important empowerment and empathy are to delivering great caller experiences and reaping the rewards of your relationships.

Thinking about the personal approach

Personalisation isn’t always about making an experience unique to an individual customer. Instead, it’s about adjusting and adapting to the customer’s preferences. The research we mentioned teaches us that most people do have a preference when it comes to pronouns in interactions with companies.

These results highlight that using the term ‘You’ and explicitly highlighting to the customer that they are the one you are talking to has little effect on the interaction. However, on the other hand, the use of ‘You’ can backfire and create discomfort for the customer.

The use of the ‘You’ pronoun becomes problematic when what the agent says implies that the burden of action and responsibility lies with the customer rather than the agent or the organisation. The example used in the paper brings this home. What would you prefer to hear if you are asking for help in accessing your account?

“If you have your username, you can look into your account.” Or “If your username is available, your account can be looked into.”

If you are like most people and the respondents in the study, you would have a distinct preference for the second statement. This is because the first statement has the agent transferring the onus and the responsibility to resolve the issue on to you as a customer.

This understandably leads to an adverse reaction from the customer. It leads to the feeling that the agent is distancing themselves from the situation, the absolute opposite of taking ownership.

Increase your revenue and improve the caller experience

In summary, take in the learnings of this study and incorporate these into your training and guidance for agents. Have agents take ownership in words as well as in action, have them say “I” rather than “We” as much as possible.

Ensure that the agents, wherever reasonable and practical, retain the burden of action, at least in their communication. And by this we mean, if you need the customer to do something, it’s preferable to use a passive tense.

Premier CX has been offering agent coaching for many years now. Not only do we consider things from the customer’s perspective but also from a branding and organisational viewpoint.

Why not get in touch to talk more about how we can help your agents talk the way you and your customers need them to.

This article was originally published on the Premier CX website.

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