If you’re going to consistently deliver exceptional customer service, you need to have standards. So as as consultant on a customer experience overhaul initiative (or even a more modest customer service refresher), I get to work setting up a set of customer service standards (best practices) in areas that include:
• Long-form digital communication (mostly email)
•Real-time digital communication (live chat, messaging, social replies and posting)
• In-person interaction
• Telephone-specific conversational nuances
• Interacting with (and co-existing with) AI, automation, and self-service, while still providing superior human-delivered customer service
The importance of authentic language
There is one area in particular where my recommendations have evolved over time, and that’s language. Today’s customers prefer what could be called an authentic style of customer service. In other words, they feel most comfortable when the employees who serve them act informally, avoiding the airs and artificiality of the past. Nobody wants to have their latte served by (or engage in a live chat with) someone who’s acting like a servile butler at Buckingham Palace or someone serving tea at the Plaza in the Eloise era or an actor in a Grey Poupon commercial.
As the goal of an authentic customer service style applies to language, standards should be updated to encourage employees to use less-formal language than was the previous norm and to relax or end the use of word-for-word scripts (except when it comes to explaining or laying down the law on issues of privacy, security, and safety).
I’m in good company in recommending this. Even the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, so famously formal for many years, has made this transformation in the language that they use and has seen a positive impact on guest reactions. “We’ve become intentionally less formal over time,” Herve Humler, long-time Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company president and founding member of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, told me not long ago. “We focus now on authentic, unscripted conversation and interactions with the customer. In the early days when putting together this hotel company and growing it globally, we scripted almost everything. You’ d hear “my pleasure” repeated everywhere you went in the hotel because that was part of the script. We have evolved from that today and now encourage our employees to be themselves. To conduct interactions with utmost respect and courtesy, but in a way that is natural to their personality and the warmth of their caring natures.”
Rules that still apply
No matter how informal the language, there are still some rules that need to apply. 1. Customer service language should elevate the customer, not push them down.
• Anything that negatively compares your customer with others should be off limits, “Our other customers never had a problem with that,” and the like.
• Likewise, avoid insulting missteps like saying “Only one?” to a guest coming into your restaurant.
2. Customer service language should avoid being demanding. Remember, the customer is the customer. They’re the force behind our paycheck.
• Discouraged: ‘‘You owe . . .’’
Better: ‘‘Our records show a balance of . . .’’
• Discouraged: ‘‘You need to . . .’’ (This makes some customers think: ‘‘I don’t need to do diddly, buddy—I’m your customer!’’)
Better: ‘‘We ﬁnd it usually works best when . . .’’
3. Customer service language shouldn’t suggest things that you don’t want to bring into the conversation.
• This is why the phrase “no problem” (and perhaps I’m fighting a losing battle here) is such a problem. Suddenly, your customer is led to think about a problem, when before they weren’t.
• It’s also the reason that the energetic and otherwise-polished young server in a Forbes-rated Five Star hotel I visited recently needs coaching: Viewing my quickly finished breakfast (I’d nearly licked the plate), she told me, using “authentic” language as her manager had instructed, that “I see your breakfast wasn’t super gross.” Her service was otherwise spot-on, and I was amused by the incident, but you get my point.
Micah Solomon is a customer service and customer experience consultant, keynote speaker and trainer. He also works as a ghostwriter and content creator and as a customer service expert witness. Micah was recently named “the World’s #1 Customer Service Turnaround Expert” by Inc. Magazine. Email Micah directly, visit his website, or check out Micah’s new bestseller: Ignore Your Customers (and They’ll Go Away) (HarperCollins Leadership).