Selling? Shift that Language!  — Lionesses of Africa

By Lionesses of Africa Operations Department

“…in theory there is no difference between theory and practice, while in practice there is…”, so wrote Benjamin Brewster in the June 1882 issue of The Yale Literary Magazine, and don’t we all just know it! That is why for all the articles we read from the global consultancy firms; for all the University papers written about our industries; for all the young consultants who approach us fresh from University clutching their newly printed MBAs; we know only too well that nothing beats the experience of working at the coal face and seeing the day to day problems, up close and personal.

To give an example by one of our long time Lionesses, Eugénia Langa, founder and ceo at Nweba, a world class procurement company for the Oil & Gas, Mining and other industries in Mozambique and now Angola (see her Lioness Weekender Cover Story here), a massive supporter of our work and one who is always happy to lend a hand to other Lionesses. She recently wrote an article for a global Banking Magazine alerting all to the differences between ‘Theory’ and ‘Practice’ when importing into her beautiful country, Mozambique. Theory, books and assumptions will tell you that goods move from A to B and so long as the paperwork is in order the local officials will check, stamp and release the goods. Indeed this is true, goods do get released, but as they say, timing is everything…

The most immediate impact is the fact that hours of service drop from the 24 hours [seen internationally] to a seven hour day which when one adds in the breaks for tea, for smokes, for lunch and general conversations about the weather, reduces our access to a mere 4 hours per day…

…Sadly, this import process deals not with a single centralized entity, but many different ones, each of whom have their own particular idiosyncrasies, their own opening and closing hours and their own addresses, sometimes some distance from each other. Importers are expected to visit each and every one of these (sometimes more than once) in the search for approvals, official stamps, confirmations of payment and so on. With different opening hours this then on most occasions will result in us spending all morning (if we are lucky, only the morning) in a queue at the first office, moving to the next, where we have to wait for the lunch hour to finish before racing around to the last office hoping to arrive before they close the queue for the day at 2pm, to ensure that the office respects its closing time of 3pm. 

Often the entire day results in simply being told to ‘come back tomorrow’!

So it was with some trepidation that we opened a hefty research report entitled: “How Concrete Language Shapes Customer Satisfaction”, by Grant Packard, an associate professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business, York University and Jonah Berger an associate professor of marketing at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, here.

In their deep research, and it is deep, citing over 120 other academic papers (certainly a minimum 5 mugs of Coffee read, and we’re talking the strong stuff the HoF brings in on occasions!) they show how language directs our behaviours in everyday interactions in sales. Is there a holy grail, a format we can follow and like a hypnotist draw our customers closer? If so, is this easy to learn and implement, or is this yet another occasion when ‘practice’ proves different from ‘theory’?

We have all been there. In a shop we see the shoe ‘Bella’ and we ask for a size 3 in Navy to try and the shop assistant nods and disappears. Did she hear me? How long will she be? I have only rushed out of the office for a moment, so I can’t be long…

When the shop assistant arrives back holding a ‘Bella’, size 3 and in Navy, there is an internal sigh of relief, but the damage sub-consciously is done. Without knowing it the shop assistant has moved a step closer to losing the sale. How? She did what was asked, she found the Navy in 3 and came back as fast as possible…

It is within this nervousness, this uncertainty that the authors of this report believe the answers lie. As they say: “Consumers are often frustrated by customer service. But could a simple shift in language help improve customer satisfaction?” 

Customer satisfaction. As we showed in one of our Weekender articles (here) if you can solve a customer’s problem completely rather than ‘resolved acceptably’, then the chances of them coming back to you to purchase again jumps dramatically in your favour. Indeed it was found that this jump takes the chances of a repeat sale to this same customer to between 74-79% (depending on type of industry). When one compares that success rate with the repeat sale chances of a customer who bought from you and had no problems what-so-ever (at between 60-68%) one begins to wonder why. Someone who bought from you with no problems is less likely to buy again from you than if they had a problem and that problem was resolved completely?

In fact it comes down to trust. You have shown ‘above and beyond’ that you cared about the customer and it is in the word ‘trust’ that so much of sales is built. The fascinating Wharton, Baker & Verde Group US Consumer Loyalty Study can be read here, entitled: “The Great Payoff of Delivering WOW! Experiences”.

But are you always destined to languish in the 60-68% range if you are just very good at your job and there are no problems to solve at all, let alone completely? Surely there is a way to turbo charge, or even just tweak the chances higher with simply good customer service? As we all know, even a small change in percentages make a huge difference over time (just ask Casinos!). The authors of this report believe it is possible to increase “customer satisfaction by 9% and actual spending by at least 13%” simply by changing our language to more ‘concrete language’ to show the customer that you are indeed listening.

Listening – how infuriating is it if you are trying to tell your child something and they are head down in their phone, they don’t nod, they don’t answer, just ‘tap, tap, tap’. They may be listening – who knows? While your blood starts to boil, something miraculous happens, they put down their phone and get ready for school. But the stress levels have risen and it takes some moments for calm to return…

Of course that is an extreme, but it does show the effect that even the fear or anger that someone is not listening, has on our mind. So it is in Sales (albeit at a lower rate of stress we hope!). Listening is something we have pressed many times in our articles, so this is nothing new, but what is new here is actually showing the customer (or your mother for that matter – in case little ‘Jimmy’ is reading this!) that you listened through concrete language.

Concrete language is the key and is the opposite of abstract language, so be specific, not vague. The customer “must perceive” that you are listening, just as Mum must know that little ‘Jimmy’ heard that it was time for school.

In our above Shoe Shop example, all it would have taken would be for the sales assistant to say: “Certainly Madam, I shall go to find a size 3 Bella in Navy. I shall be right back”, and smile (don’t forget the old ways still help!). The Shopper would have sat back relaxed knowing what was going on and through that simple answer, Trust Builds! That simple change has ensured that the shopper “…believe[s] someone is attending to, and understanding, their personal needs.

Given the fact that a shop assistant or (and especially) a call centre employee may speak to hundreds of customers in a week, it is easy to move back into vague and more abstract language and just use stock answers, such as “Sorry for this issue”, but each time more concrete language is used such as “Sorry for sending you the wrong size in the Grey T-Shirt, when we should have sent size 10”, makes all the difference. Quite simply there is no way that an employee can respond with concrete language if they didn’t listen. If they are watching the clock or fearful that they have only answered 37 calls this hour and are well behind their allocated minimum number (yes some Call Centres can be quite aggressive on their employees), then listening disappears from the equation and the customer becomes just another number – AND THE CUSTOMER CAN FEEL THIS!

Happily our fears over the vague and abstract relationship between Theory and Practice, were then allayed as the authors threw their theories into the big wide world to test! Happily they were proved right as their tests with over 200 actual customer service calls which they split into ‘abstract’ replies and ‘concrete’ ones confirmed their theory. More concrete replies bring about happier and more satisfied customers.

But what if the customer service agent just sounded better – we all know that if we talk ‘with a smile’, bizarrely the person on the other end of the line seems to pick this up and responds better. So back they went to check this via email and using a larger base of 941 emails and replies they went back to work. What was interesting, the firm concerned also provided the sales each of these customers did in the 90 days prior and 90 days after the interaction.

Again success, not only were customers happier with more concrete language, their purchases went up too (and little ‘Jimmy’ is probably more likely to get a Doughnut from you on the way back from school!).

The results were helpfully charted:

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