New study shows customer attitudes influenced by how salespeople talk

One of life’s most common complaints is frustration with customer service. Generic statements like, “Did you find everything you’re looking for?”, “Can I help you?”, or “Anything else today?” can make the customer feel like they’re just another cog in the wheel of big business – that nobody is actually listening to their personal needs. With the pandemic, now more than ever, the few human conversations customers have with businesses are even more important.

New studies published in the February 2021 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research explore how a subtle aspect of how people talk – known as linguistic concreteness – can have an important impact on customers' attitudes, purchase intentions, and even their actual purchases.

Grant Packard

Imagine shopping for a shirt in a store. A salesperson that stops by may refer to that object concretely (e.g., “shirt” or “blouse”), abstractly (e.g., “that”) or somewhere in between (e.g., “item,” “top” or “clothing”). While these may seem like trivial variations, Schulich School of Business marketing professor Grant Packard, and Jonah Berger from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, predict these subtle differences could translate into increased sales and improved customer satisfaction.

“We thought that by actually saying the specific things the customer is interested in, or by making your own actions more tangible and ‘real,’ employees might signal they’re paying attention or actually doing something for that customer,” explains Packard.

Packard and Berger first analyzed the content of over 1,000 real customer service interactions from two different companies, one based in the U.S. and the other in Canada. For the first company, they transcribed audio recordings from over 19 hours of customer service calls, and then analyzed the language using computational linguistics methods. Results indicated a significant increase in satisfaction when agents used more concrete words, even after controlling for over 30 alternative factors.

The second data set looked at email-based service interactions for an online retailer and found that more concrete agent language was linked to higher customer purchase volume following the interaction, even after controlling for a similarly large number of alternative explanations. While the authors urge caution in assuming these results would sustain for everyone, a one standard deviation (roughly 33 per cent) increase in concreteness improved satisfaction by nine per cent and actual spending by at least 13 per cent for these firms.

The researchers then ran a series of experiments to try to determine when and why linguistic concreteness matters. In one experiment, groups of participants saw one of five versions of a service person’s response, each just slightly increasing in concreteness (e.g., “I’ll go search for that”, “I’ll go search for that t-shirt”, and “I’ll go search for that t-shirt in grey”). As the employee’s response subtly increased in how specific and tangible the words were, so did the participant’s satisfaction with the employee.

“The fact that concrete language suggests to others that you’re listening makes sense,” says Packard. “If you’re not paying attention to someone, you can’t really reference the things they care about. By paying attention to the language their employees use, all kinds of organizations might help reduce customer anxiety and frustration, improve satisfaction, and build trust with customers in what are truly challenging times.”

A free copy of the article “How Concrete Language Shapes Customer Satisfaction” is available at https://www.grantpackard.com/papers.

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