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More and more consumers are engaging with customer service through digital channels, including websites, email, texts, live chat, and social media. In 2017, only half of customer experiences with companies involved face-to-face or voice-based interactions, and digital interactions are expected to represent two-thirds of customer experiences within the next few years.1 The vast majority of customer service interactions around the world begins in online channels.2
Despite the convenience and speed of such interactions, they lack some of the most important aspects of offline customer service. In-person interactions are rich in nonverbal expressions and gestures, which can signal deep engagement, and an agent’s tone of voice can convey empathy and focus in phone conversations. Over time, these interpersonal touches help companies build and sustain relationships with customers.
But can some of that benefit be captured in the world of digital customer service? We argue that it can — with the right words. Our focus on words is consistent with a growing recognition among businesses that language matters, digitally or otherwise. Apple, for example, has explicit policies detailing which words can and cannot be used, and how they should be used when interacting with customers.3 The use of customer service scripts is also commonplace in service contexts, where employees are encouraged to use specific words when interacting with customers.4
However, we find that most companies are taking a misguided approach in their emails, texts, and social media communications with customers. They’re using words that, while designed to engage customers, can sometimes alienate them.
Our research5 focuses on personal pronouns (I, we, you), which psychologists have linked to critical personal and social outcomes.6 Customer service agents use personal pronouns in nearly every sentence they utter, whether it’s “We’re happy to help you” or “I think we do have something in your size.” Our research shows that simple shifts in employee language can enhance customer satisfaction and purchase behavior.
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The Power of Pronouns
Conventional wisdom says that being customer-oriented is critical to customer satisfaction. That’s why phrases like “We’re happy to help you” have become so popular in service settings.
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1. S. Moore, “Gartner Says 25% of Customer Service Operations Will Use Virtual Customer Assistants by 2020,” Gartner press release, Feb. 19, 2018.
2. Microsoft, “2017 State of Global Customer Service Report,” accessed August 2018.
3. S. Biddle, “How to Be a Genius: This Is Apple’s Secret Employee Training Manual,” Gizmodo.com, Aug. 28, 2012.
4. C. Borowski, “What Customers Think About Call Center Scripts, 2014 Versus 2018,” Software Advice, accessed August 2018.
5. G. Packard, S.G. Moore, and B. McFerran, “(I’m) Happy to Help (You): The Impact of Personal Pronoun Use in Customer-Firm Interactions,” Journal of Marketing Research 55, no. 4 (August 2018): 541-555.
6. J. Pennebaker, “The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us” (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013).
7. W. Ickes, S. Reidhead, and M. Patterson, “Machiavellianism and Self-Monitoring: As Different as ‘Me’ and ‘You,’” Social Cognition 4, no. 1 (March 1986): 58-74.
8. J. Fahnestock, “Rhetorical Style: The Uses of Language in Persuasion,” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
9. J. Singh and D. Sirdeshmukh, “Agency and Trust Mechanisms in Consumer Satisfaction and Loyalty Judgments,” Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science 28, no. 1 (2000): 150-167; A. Smith, R. Bolton, and J. Wagner, “A Model of Customer Satisfaction With Service Encounters Involving Failure and Recovery,” Journal of Marketing Research 36, no. 3 (1999): 356-372; and A. Parasuraman, “Understanding Customer Expectations of Service,” MIT Sloan Management Review 32, no. 3 (1991): 12-40.
10. Packard, Moore, and McFerran, “(I’m) Happy to Help (You): The Impact of Personal Pronoun Use in Customer-Firm Interactions.”