An employee at a home improvement store helps a woman pick out paint swatches. The employee holds a clipboard and points to some blue swatches.
Using specific terms when talking with your customers — "the dark blue paint" instead of just "the paint," for example — shows that you are listening to what they're saying. — Getty Images/andresr

Whether it involves the incoherent ramblings of a customer service rep or the fuzzy claims of a salesperson, vagueness frustrates customers and discourages purchases. When employees speak in concrete terms—as simple as referring to a “red sweater” instead of “that clothing”— customers are more satisfied, more willing to buy something and apt to buy more of it, a new study found. The effect owes in part to a consumer’s perception that the employee is listening and responding with care, rather than just going through the motions.

“Managers should encourage employees to just use the words the customer is using to say the things the customer cares about,” said study leader Grant Packard, an associate professor of marketing at York University in Toronto. “Using concrete language makes it seem like employees are really listening and paying attention to the customer's own needs.”

Never say ‘I’ll get that’

Packard and his colleague, marketing professor Jonah Berger at the University of Pennsylvania, analyzed outcomes of real customer service interactions recorded in company phone calls and emails, including those from one large American apparel retailer. Then they did experiments with more than a thousand people to test and validate their findings. Most of the experiments involved U.S. participants.

The findings should apply to small businesses as well, Packard said, and not just during formal customer service calls.

“If a coffee shop customer asks for a latte, don't say ‘I'll get your drink.’ Say ‘I'll get your latte,’" Packard explained. “And really don't just say ‘I’ll get that.’”

Teaching employees how to refer to products with tangible and specific words can be cheaper and more effective than traditional sales training, the researchers wrote in the Journal of Consumer Research.

“Saying ‘it’ or ‘that’ are easy shortcuts for us, and they're surprisingly costly,” Packard told CO—. “Use the noun for the thing you're describing.”

Using concrete language makes it seem like employees are really listening and paying attention to the customer's own needs.

Grant Packard, associate professor of marketing, York University

Customers expect this

The advice could help any company, large or small, deal with frustrated customers or avoid frustrating them in the first place. Some 61% of people say they’re treated like case numbers, not people, by the companies they buy from, according to a survey and analysis by Gladly, a company that sells customer service software.

“At the end of the day, consumers are human,” Gladly researchers pointed out. “And as humans, they value having their individuality recognized. They want the companies they buy from to remember what they purchased, to follow up with them and even greet them by name.”

In today’s connected world, where consumers have more options than ever, no business can escape the need for excellent customer service.

“Your customers no longer compare you just to your direct competition,” wrote Shep Hyken, a customer service expert at Shepard Presentations. “You are being compared to the best service they have ever received—from any company or any person. It could be a vendor, a retail store, even an online seller—any business. Customers now know what great customer service looks like, and they expect it from you.”

Using concrete language can be one easy way to improve that customer service, especially on the phone, where an employee can’t use eye contact or other body language to indicate they’re paying attention, Packard said.

But descriptive rather than vague wording can help even with one-on-one interactions, as with a personal trainer or a plumber on-site. Also, the value of concreteness increases when a customer’s needs are complex, he added, or when an employee might be busy or distracted—as in a restaurant, retail store or auto repair shop.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published April 12, 2021