MIT Sloan Management Review — 31/10/2018 at 15:00

How Should Companies Talk to Customers Online?



The words service agents use to engage customers often end up backfiring.

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. The vast majority of customer service interactions around the world begins in online channels.

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. The use of customer service scripts is also commonplace in service contexts, where employees are encouraged to use specific words when interacting with customers.

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 research focuses on personal pronouns (I, we, you), which psychologists have linked to critical personal and social outcomes. 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.

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.


Brent McFerran is the W.J. VanDusen Associate Professor of Marketing at Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Sarah G. Moore is an associate professor of marketing at the University of Alberta’s Alberta School of Business in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Grant Packard (@grantpackard) is an associate professor of marketing at Lazaridis School of Business and Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

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