Timing is everything in sales conversations, study finds

Salesperson talking to woman in yellow shirt

New research from York University’s Schulich School of Business shows that when it comes to sales, service and marketing communications, it’s not just what you say that matters – but when you say it.

Grant Packard
Grant Packard

The findings are contained in the recently published article “When Language Matters” in the Journal of Consumer Research, co-written by Schulich marketing Professor Grant Packard and collaborators from the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in China and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

The researchers carried out a multi-method investigation, including analysis of thousands of moments across hundreds of service conversations at two sales firms, plus four separate experiments, to document the moment-to-moment dynamics between language and important marketing outcomes like customer satisfaction and purchases.

The researchers demonstrate their approach to identifying when language matters by looking at “warm” and “competent” language – which can be as subtle as the difference between a salesperson asking, “How are you today?” (warm) versus, “How may I assist you?”(competent). Conventional wisdom in marketing is that a warm approach leads customers to think employees are less competent, so competence should be prioritized throughout the customer interaction.

This new research shakes up this conventional wisdom. Customers were more satisfied – and spent more money – when employees used both warm and competent language but at separate, specific times. Specifically, customers were more satisfied when agents used warmer language at the beginning and end of conversations. Warmer language, it was found, can be costly during the middle of the conversation, when customers expect to “get down to business.” Competent language works the opposite way: it can be costly at the start and end but enhances customer satisfaction and purchases when emphasized in the conversation’s middle.

“Our research helps update beliefs about the ‘warmth-competence paradox,’ provides a method for determining when certain kinds of language matters and highlights ways to improve the customer experience,” explains Packard.

Managers and researchers who want to put these findings into practise using their own data can try out the free, automated language analysis tool developed by the research team, at WhenLanguageMatters.net.

“Our findings can help improve customer service, aid employee assessment and development, and fine-tune artificial intelligence chatbots’ effectiveness,” Packard says. “They can also more broadly be used to shed light on word-of-mouth, sales interactions and marketing communications.”