December 20, 2016 karynross

Words Matter.

It was a cold, rainy, blustery fall day. By the time I got inside I was totally drenched. Wondering what I was going to do with my dripping umbrella, you can imagine my relief when I saw a rack of umbrella bags conveniently placed in the lobby. Taking one, I couldn’t help thinking to myself that it was great that the building provided this convenience for customers, but the wording of the sign above the bags felt a little off-putting to me:

“Please help keep our lobby floors dry. Use our complimentary wet umbrella bags.”

If you’re wondering why I thought the wording was odd, contrast it with the wording on an umbrella bag rack in another building just up the street:

“For your safety and convenience.”

Notice the difference?

  • Sign 1 used the word ‘our’: Please help keep our lobby floors dry. Use our complimentary wet umbrella bags.
  • Sign 2 used the word ‘your’ instead: For your safety and convenience.

Maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “So what? Who cares? Both buildings are giving out exactly the same umbrella bags. How much difference could one word possibly make?”

In my opinion, that seemingly tiny wording choice makes a huge difference – both for customers and for the people who work for each building company. Here’s why.

  • The wording of Sign 1 focuses internally on the company. The sign actually tells the customer what they can do for the company: ‘Help keep our floors dry.’
  • The wording of Sign 2 focuses on the customer. It lets customers know what the company is going to do for them! ‘For your safety and convenience.’

As a customer, I can assure you that I’d prefer to know that the focus is on me – on my safety and convenience – and not on how I can improve the efficiency of a company’s internal process such as mopping a wet floor numerous times a day, which is what I immediately thought about after reading Sign 1.

Although Sign 1 may imply that keeping the floor dry will improve customer safety, Sign 2 states it explicitly. And as important as that is for how customers feel, it’s just as important for the building company’s employees. Because service is about caring for other people and putting their needs first. Choosing to use words that make that explicit reinforces that the company expects its team members to have a ‘customer first’ orientation. In a nutshell, how your employees feel about and treat your customers will depend, in a large part, on the words your company chooses to use, in internal and external communications of all sorts, including signs.

As well as choosing internally focused words instead of customer focused words, many service organizations also use what I call “machine words”, instead of “human, organic words” to describe the organization itself. This always surprises me, because what service organizations are all about is people! People creating value with other people during each service interaction.

In The Toyota Way to Service Excellence: Lean Transformation in Service Organizations, coauthor Jeff Liker and I describe the negative consequences of viewing organizations as ‘machines’ instead of as the ‘living human systems’ that they are (see Chapter 3: Principle 1: Philosophy of Long-Term Systems Thinking). Unfortunately, when we use machine words to describe our customers – and the people who serve them – we create the conditions that allow us to ‘forget’ that our customers are human beings, just like we are. And when we forget that they are human beings, it becomes easier to ignore the fact that they have feelings, wants and desires that we need to satisfy through our service.

As organizations, we’re often so used to using machine words to describe our customers that we might not even notice we’re using them. Some examples to look for in your organization are:

  • Referring to customers as ‘client or account numbers’
  • Referring to customer requests as transaction types such as invoices, tickets, work order number or out of service items (If your organization practices lean, take a look at your huddle boards and see what language they use.)

As well as being ‘machine words’, these are also words that have to do with internal processes. Like the umbrella bag sign example earlier, using these types of words takes the focus away from the customer and puts it squarely on internal processes. Imagine how differently service representatives might care for customers if, instead of referring to them as a number, they were accustomed to referring to them by company or contact name and by the specific service need each one has.

As a company, using non-human machine words to describe the people who serve your customers, or to describe what people do each day is also problematic. Again, it doesn’t encourage a culture of human beings helping human beings – which is what customer service is all about. Some common ‘machine words’ used to describe employees that I hear often are:

  • Employee numbers
  • Resources
  • Human capital
  • Talent
  • Brand

Why can’t we just use people’s names instead of giving them a number? After all, each one of us is a unique individual with something special to offer. And what if we referred to people as colleagues, co-workers, team-mates or team-members? What a difference that would make in how people view themselves and their roles; instead of separating, dividing and dehumanizing, these words connect people in the shared purpose of caring for customers.

And what about words like ‘leverage’, ‘drive’, and ‘move the needle’? More machine words. What if we substituted words like create, grow, develop, blossom and help instead? We want our team members to treat our customers (and each other!) with caring and compassion, empathy and understanding. if we use machine language to describe our people, how can we expect them to feel and act, not like ‘cogs in the machine’, but like the caring human beings they are, and that our customers need them to be?

Words both create and transmit organizational culture. To both customers and the team members who serve them. So, if you’re in the business of serving customers (and truthfully, what business isn’t?) and you want to make sure that your customers are being treated in a kind, caring, compassionate and human way, take a close look at the words that you are using. Because every single one of them matters.

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