Your company, I expect, has put quite a bit of thought into the language used in your marketing campaigns and website. And quite a bit less thought into the words that your employees use directly with customers.

At least, this is the pattern I encounter as a customer experience consultant. And it's a serious mistake, because customers don’t generally get their make-or-break impressions of a company primarily from high-minded branding exercises. They get them primarily from day-to-day conversations with you.

Language underlies all other components of customer satisfaction.

For example:

  • A perfect product won’t be experienced as perfect unless you also use the right language in describing it to customers.
  • Even your best-intentioned, technically flawless employees can alienate customers if they use the wrong language.

  • When you have a service failure, the right words can be your best ally.



If you haven’t given much thought to selecting and controlling 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.

Establish a Consistent Style of Speech

No brand is complete until a brand-appropriate style of speaking with customers is in place at all levels of the enterprise. You should therefore work to achieve a consistent (although not stilted or overly scripted-sounding) style of service speech.

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, my customer service consulting clients have found it to be a pretty easy sell companywide.

Heres how to make it happen

Study the language that works best with your own customers, and identify harmful phrases that should be avoided. Codify this for your employees in a brief lexicon or language handbook that can be learned and referred to on the job. In the lexicon, you’ll spell out which words and phrases are best to use and which should be avoided in various common situations.

Putting together a language handbook is a relatively simple undertaking. It doesn’t require an English degree (although those are great to have). But it does require forethought, experimentation, and some pondering about human nature.

Here, for example, are some good/bad language choices I use in the lexicon I’ve prepared for my own businesses and those for whom I'm a customer service consultant. These are certainly not surgical rocketry, as you’ll see.

Bad: ‘‘You owe . . .’’
Good: ‘‘Our records show a balance of . . .’’

Bad: ‘‘You need to . . .’’ (This makes some customers think: ‘‘I don’need to do jack, buddy—Im 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 callers answer)

Time to worry about  “No worries!”

Good lexicons 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.

Choose language to put customers at ease, not to put them down

No matter what your business is, make it your mission to avoid having your employees use any condescending or coercive language. Sometimes these language put-downs are obvious, but sometimes they're quite subtle. Here are examples of both:

Subtly insulting: In an informal business, if a customer asks, ‘‘How are you?’’ the response, ‘‘I’m well,’’ may make you feel like you're using proper-sounding grammar—but may not be the best choice. Hearing this  Victorian-sounding response may make your customers momentarily self-conscious about whether their own grammar is less than perfect. It may be better to have your employees choose from more familiar alternatives like, ‘‘I’m doing great!’’ or ‘’Super!’’

(Most important, of course, is to follow up with an inquiry about the customer’s own well-being: ‘‘And how are you, this morning?’’)

Unsubtly coercive: I’m not likely to forget the famous steakhouse that trained staff to ask our party as they seated us, ‘‘Which bottled water will you be enjoying with us this evening, still, or sparkling?’’ We took that phrasing to mean we weren’t permitted to ask for tap water.

(In this situation, one that comes up in many restaurants, what is a better choice of words? How about: ‘‘Would you prefer ice water or bottled water with your meal?’’ Or, considering that this question offers an early chance for the waitstaff to build rapport with guests, add some local flavor. In Chicago, a friend’s restaurant a few years back was asking, ‘‘Will you be having bottled water or The Mayor’s finest aqua with your meal?’’)

Danny Meyer-ize or the classic Ritz-Carlton approach: It's your choice.

Getting employees to say the right thing is a tough and touchy subject. And there are two ways to write your company lexicon–your language handbook. You should choose whichever method suits you better.

One is the classic ‘‘Say This While Avoiding This’’ language guide style, made famous for many years by the work of the Ritz-Carlton.   This optimizes customer satisfaction in most businesses and helps bind staff members into a team. It also helps you work with a wider variety of employees, with a wider variety of educational backgrounds, who may appreciate the help choosing the most appropriate phrase.

But if it strikes you as too prescriptive (or too much work) 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 Thou Shalt Nots.

I call the Negative Lexicon the Danny Meyer approach, after the teachings of the 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 frequently.

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