A Simple Tweak to Make Customer-Service Calls a Little Less Painful

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Photo: Matthias Graben/Freelens Pool/Getty Images

There’s a nagging sense of foreboding that can accompany the journey through those automated customer-service phone menus: Yes, it feels like you’ve pressed a million different numbers for a million different options, and yes, it’s annoying to know you can’t just explain your problem to a human without jumping through hoops, but you also know the odds are good that whenever you do finally get someone on the line, things will only get more frustrating.

Enter a study recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, which found a simple tweak to make those conversations a little less painful. The study authors analyzed hundreds of call transcripts from a customer-service center in Canada, totaling roughly 10,000 words and 36 hours of speaking time. In around 80 percent of the calls, they found, the caller showed some form of aggression, whether it was a harsh choice of words or cutting off the representative on the other end of the line. Both of those things, unsurprisingly, made it more likely that an employee would snap back or yell — in fact, in the calls when customers were civil and polite, fewer than 5 percent contained any rudeness on the employee’s part. But the most powerful trigger for escalating a call into an argument was something more subtle: using first-person pronouns, or what the researchers labeled “targeted aggression” — saying your product instead of this product, for example.

Shifting the focus (and the blame) away from the person you’re talking to is a small difference, but one that could potentially steer a conversation away from more contentious waters — and help you get what you want out of the call. “If customers change their language so that it’s less about the employee and more about the product or problem in question, they can improve the quality of the customer service they get,” study author David Walker, a management professor at the University of British Columbia’s business school, said in a statement.

If nothing else, the study is a helpful reminder that there’s a living, breathing, feeling person on the other end, and that you have at least one thing in common: They’re probably not enjoying this experience any more than you are.

A Simple Tweak to Make Customer-Service Calls Less Painful