3 Expert Customer Service Language Tips to Never Forget Follow this customer service advice on three customer service issues involving language.
- The money language pit
- The "How are you?" ping pong game
- The Tricky use of humor in customer service.
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
As a customer service consultant and training designer, one thing I help my client companies to do is improve the way they use language around their customers. Here are my thoughts on three language-related customer service behavioral issues:
- The Money-Language Pit
- The "How are you?" Ping-Pong Game (and the importance of not dropping that "how are you?" ping-pong ball)
- My thoughts on using humor in customer service and other customer-facing roles.
The money language pit
Money — particularly money owed — is a subject that, if talked about too directly, can be off-putting to customers. I'd avoid telling a customer something like,
"Hey Pat, you still owe us $339,000,000.33."
Pat may indeed owe you that money, but this phrasing makes you sound accusatory. It's like you're saying that Pat wants to drag his feet or even abscond without paying down his $339-million-and-change balance.
The same point could be better conveyed by,
"Our records show a current balance of $339,000,000.33."
Same point, gentler language.
The "How Are You Doing?" ping-pong game
When you're responding to a customer who's just asked,
"How are you?"
I suggest you reply with the following, "I'm doing great. How are you?"
Any response along these lines is fine. The important thing is that you reciprocate — returning the verbal ping-pong ball to the customer's side of the table — rather than letting the "How are you?" ball drop to the floor.
Admittedly, the "How are you?" ritual is basically an empty exchange. But since it's the customer who has initiated it, you must support your side of an important part of communication: reciprocity. So, please don't just reply with,
"Good," or "I'm fine," or "I'm well,"
and let the conversation die right there. Likewise, please do not answer with a chilly, "I'm well; how can I help?" without first asking the customer how they are doing.
Your offer of assistance does not replace the need to reciprocate their inquiry into your well-being. In fact, it arguably implies that such pleasantries are a waste of your time and that the customer should hurry up and get to the meat of the conversation.
Humor in customer service
Should you ever permit your customer service employees and other customer-facing staff members to indulge in humor? Although I have some reservations about this professionally, as a customer, I definitely enjoy it.
I can still make myself chuckle by thinking back to the time I asked for coffee on JetBlue, and the flight attendant replied,
"Give me a minute to burn a new pot for you."
Or, when I was on a Virgin America (now a part of Alaska Airlines) flight, and the pilot came out of the cockpit to apologize for the late departure and promised to…
"...fly it like we stole it!" and still get us to our destination on time.
And on Southwest, when the flight attendant warned passengers who prematurely unbuckled their seatbelts rather than waiting for the chime,
"I'd keep your seatbelt on if I were you. He's a great pilot, but he's a lousy driver."
Or the dentist who, when I doubted his claim that I was grinding my teeth at night, told me,
"Well, somebody has been grinding them."
And the time I told a woman answering the phone at a new vendor that I found their prices surprisingly reasonable, and she shot back,
"I can raise them just for you!"
The upside to injecting your personal brand of humor into customer service is that it can be memorable, disarming, and an instant bonding experience. The downside is that it's hard to know your audience and predict their sensibilities and sensitivities.
The "burn a new pot" implied that "we're all in this airplane cabin experience together, and I'm going to help you enjoy it by using my whole personality." But a less understanding (grumpier!) passenger might be inspired to tweet, "The coffee standards are so low on this airline that even the flight attendant realizes it."
The problem here is that two people can hear the same words and walk away with two totally different takes on it. You've probably seen this in action at work. You think your coworker is a total sweetheart, but another employee sees him as a phony.
Why does this happen? Well, a lot of it comes down to cultural differences. Culture is like this big soup of assumptions, traditions, and values that a community cooks up over time. So, someone from a different culture might interpret your behavior in ways you'd never even dream of, all thanks to their own cultural soup. (But don't get carried away. Things like personality or family background can have a bigger impact on an individual's values than broad societal norms.)
The challenge is that you're guessing about humor — and guessing is always risky. So, unlike most other hard-and-fast language guidelines I can lay down for you, this is an area where you are on your own. Good luck, buttercup!