Speaking to Customers in Uncertain Times

When we can’t talk face to face, businesses must figure out how to cultivate consumer trust and confidence.

Reading Time: 6 min 


Businesses are increasingly operating in a low-trust world. The levels at which people mistrust government, traditional media, and social media are high — and rising.1 Companies increasingly struggle to maintain consumer confidence on issues such as data collection and privacy, the use of artificial intelligence, and environmental practices.

Add to the trust deficit a global pandemic, in which consumers have been asked to limit their visits to stores and restaurants and to shop online when possible. Those who do venture out face an uncertain and (literally) distanced service experience: They’re questioned about their health, asked to line up and wear masks, shown where to walk, and reminded to avoid other customers and employees. Although this gamut of control measures is well intentioned, it may undermine customers’ sense that companies provide safe and welcoming service.

This trust deficit persists outside the retail space. Individuals contacting customer service — whether at airlines, banks, or retailers — during the pandemic are waiting longer than ever and are dealing with uncertainty and frustration about refunds and product availability.

So customers are arriving at interactions in highly charged emotional states. Many front-line workers with similar safety anxieties and changing directives from their supervisors are also stressed. Further, due to staffing cuts, shuttered branches, and closed call centers, many customer service employees are working from home with less support from team members and supervisors.

In short, the potential for fraught customer service experiences — in person or otherwise — is higher than ever. But a growing body of research on language use in service interactions can help. Companies can proactively make the most of conversations with customers, whether in physically distanced and masked face-to-face interactions, through voice-based communication on the phone, or in text-based emails and chat messages. By speaking to customers with specific, dedicated attention; establishing individual connections through the use of the word “I”; and conveying care through warm words and the generous use of “thank you,” businesses can ease customer anxiety and foster customer confidence.

The Challenge: Build Customer Trust and Satisfaction

Trust is key to customer satisfaction, and the current situation has stolen from consumers and companies most of the face-to-face, nonverbal ways people build trust — things like smiles, head nods, and handshakes.

In this environment, every word matters. Below, we highlight how using the right “speaking terms” can send signals that lead to the trust that businesses and consumers sorely need during this challenging time.

Provide customers with dedicated attention and concrete language. Without the benefit of in-person cues, it can be challenging for employees to convey to customers that they are giving them their full attention. New research that one of us conducted (Packard, with Jonah Berger of the Wharton School) shows that careful strategies around language can increase customer satisfaction and how much money the customer spends in the days following a customer service interaction.

Front-line employees who use words that describe the customer’s interest in concrete, specific terms signal that they are genuinely listening. For example, when a customer reaches a call center to inquire about her order’s delivery, she’s more satisfied when she hears, “Your package will be at your doorstep next Wednesday,” rather than, “Your order will be there next week.” A package is more concrete than an order, a doorstep is more concrete than “there,” and Wednesday is more concrete than next week.

Similarly, “How can I help you?” can sound canned and rote. Instead, an employee should mention the distinct thing the customer is likely interested in. For example, at a coffee shop, an employee might say, “Can I get a coffee started for you?” At a hardware store, if a customer is looking at lawn mowers, the employee might say, “Can I help you find a mower?”

The same advice applies when responding to complaints. Rather than just saying, “Sure, I can look into that,” it’s more powerful to repeat the concrete thing the customer wants — such as, “Sure, I can look into why we sent you the wrong shoes.”

Bridge the trust deficit through individual connections. For customers, it’s easier to have faith in a single caring individual than in a vast corporation. An analysis of real customer service encounters found that when employees used “I” (the agent) rather than “we” (the agent and company) as the pronoun, it signaled that the agent could be depended on. This simple shift in language to using “I” — for instance, “I can make that return happen for you” (not “We can make…”) — helped customers feel that the employee was acting on their behalf.

Similarly, “I’m sorry to have to cancel your flight” conveys a more genuine, personal sense of remorse than “We’re sorry to cancel the flight.” The word “we” not only decreases perceived empathy but may also make it appear that the employee is avoiding responsibility and blaming the company — something that is unlikely to increase a customer’s trust in the brand.

Another example: Rather than saying, “We probably have that in stock,” try, “I can probably find that in stock.” The former guesses about something the employee seems to have no control over, while the second conveys a desire to make a personal effort.

Don’t just be competent — be caring. Warmth and competence are the two most fundamental qualities people care about when it comes to trusting others. It’s nearly impossible to be both at the same time: Research has shown that people who try to be warm often seem less competent, and those who try to be competent often seem less warm. Later research suggested that given this challenge, employees should just try to be competent.

However, new research on conversational dynamics that one of us conducted (Packard, with Yang Li of the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business and Berger of Wharton) shows that it’s critical for employees to speak both warmly (that is, emotionally) and competently (that is, rationally). It’s just that when they do so matters. Agents should convey different tones during different parts of the interaction. Customers appreciated employees most when they bookended the conversation with warm, considerate words at the start and end but spoke with more cognitive, solution-oriented words in the middle.

Caring can also be communicated with a simple thank-you during an interaction. While past research has suggested that it’s important to apologize in customer service contexts, new work reveals that signaling appreciation (“thank you”) is prized by customers and often more effective than saying “sorry.” Although apologizing does acknowledge the company’s failure, it doesn’t alleviate consumers’ negative thoughts toward the business. In contrast, saying “thank you” (for instance, “Thank you for your patience about this”) shifts attention away from the company’s failure and toward customers, making them feel more personally important to the company. Research shows that this boosts customer self-esteem and increases customer confidence in the organization.

Finally, keep in mind that it’s not just what you say but how you say it. Even without the valuable visual cues of trust, employees can affect trust perceptions by varying the pitch of their voices and increasing the volume of their speech slightly. These signals allow communicators to seem more confident without weakening their perceived warmth.

In this new world, where face time is minimized and physically distanced, and where conversations increasingly occur via even more socially distant phones or keystrokes, it is critically important to consider how we are speaking to customers. By paying attention to language and tone, organizations can reduce customer anxiety and build trust in these challenging times.



1. “Public Trust in Government: 1958-2019,” Pew Research Center, April 11, 2019, www.pewresearch.org; J. Ball, “Distrust of Social Media Is Dragging Traditional Journalism Down,” The Guardian, Jan. 22, 2018, www.theguardian.com; and M. Jurkowitz and A. Mitchell, “An Oasis of Bipartisanship: Republicans and Democrats Distrust Social Media Sites for Political and Election News,” Pew Research Center, Jan. 29, 2020, www.pewresearch.org.

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