Language Engineering: Finding the right words to use with customers

Language underlies almost all other components of the customer experience.  Yet, your company has probably given more thought to the language it uses in marketing campaigns than to the words employees use when having conversations face-to-face with customers. That’s a mistake, because
customers don’t generally get their make-or-break impressions of your
company from high-minded branding exercises. They get them primarily
from day-to-day conversations with you. And those are the impressions
they spread to others.

If you haven’t given much thought to selecting your company language—what your staff, signage, emails, voicemails, and web-based autoresponders should say, and should never say, to customers—it’s time to do it now.

No brand is complete until a brand-appropriate style of speaking with
customers is in place at all levels of the enterprise. Which is why, whether I’m consulting with a law firm on building a client service initiative, speaking to a hospitality audience on building guest loyalty, or assisting a hospital in improving customer service for its patients, one of the first pieces of work I suggest we do together is focus on achieving a consistent style of service speech.

Develop a language lexicon.

A distinctive and consistent companywide style of service speech won’t happen on its own. You’ll need social engineering: that is, systematic training of employees. Imagine, for example, that you’ve selected ten promising salespeople for your new high-end jewelry boutique. You’ve provided them with uniforms and stylish haircuts and encouraged them to become your own brand’s versions of a Mr. or Ms. Cartier, starting on opening day. But they’ll still speak with customers much the way they speak in their own homes: that is, until you’ve
trained them in a different language style.

Happily, ‘‘engineering’’ a company-wide style of speech can be a positive, collaborative experience. If you approach this correctly, you won’t need to put a gag on anybody or twist any arms. Once everybody in an organization understands the reasons for language guidelines, it becomes a challenge, not a hindrance. The improved customer reactions and collaborative pride of mission are rewarding. As a consequence, it can be a relatively easy sell companywide.

What should be in your language lexicon?

Here, for example, are some good/bad language choices:
Bad: ‘‘You owe . . .’’
Good: ‘‘Our records show a balance of . . .’’

Bad: ‘‘You need to . . .’’ (This makes some customers think: ‘‘I don’t
need to do jack, buddy—I’m your customer!’’)
Good: ‘‘We find it usually works best when . . .’’

Bad: ‘‘Please hold.’’
Good: ‘‘May I briefly place you on hold?’’ (and then actually listen
to the caller’s answer)

The specifics of the lexicon you develop will vary depending on industry, clientele, and location. A cheerful ‘‘No worries!’’ sounds fine coming from the clerk at a Bose audio store in Portland (an informal business in an informal town) but bizarre if spoken by the concierge at the Four Seasons in Milan.

An alternative approach:

If this ‘‘Say This While Avoiding That’’ approach strikes you as too prescriptive
(or too much work), if you don’t want to develop scripted phrases and specific
word choices for your employees, at least consider developing a brief ‘‘Negative Lexicon.’’ A Negative Lexicon is just a list of crucial language Thou Shalt Nots.

The Negative Lexicon is the Danny Meyer approach, the one used by that great New York restaurateur and master of hospitality. Meyer feels uncomfortable giving his staff a list of what to say, but he doesn’t hesitate to specifically ban phrases that grate on his ears (‘‘Are we still working on the lamb?’’).

A Negative Lexicon can be kept short, sweet, and easy to learn. Of
course, new problematic words and phrases are sure to crop up as time
moves on. Ideally, you’ll update your Negative Lexicon as frequently as
Wired magazine updates its ‘‘Jargon Watch’’ column.


P.S.  For more on language engineering, learn about the Five Words You Can Never Say To A Customer.

Keynote Speaker Customer Service Speaker Micah Solomon From Micah Solomon customer service consultant, keynote speaker, customer loyalty speaker,  and #1 bestselling author of “Exceptional Service, Exceptional Profit: The Secrets of Building a Five-Star Customer Service Organization.” Visit Micah at Or, click here for your own free chapter  of Micah Solomon’s #1 customer service bestseller, Exceptional Service, Exceptional Profit: The Secrets of Building a Five-Star Customer Service Organization, co-written with Leonardo Inghilleri.