We are swimming in an ocean of words. We think them. We talk them. We write them. We shout them. We sign them. We sing them. We pray them. All day long. Even all night long. Our words make up our world. In truth, our world would definitely look a lot more different without words.
And we use of lot of words, every day of our lives. A study, led by an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Arizona, tried finding out the number of words we speak on a daily basis. The study found that, on average, women speak 16,215 words per day while men speak 15,669 words per day—making it an average of about 16,000 words on a daily basis for a normal-functioning individual.
With those many words floating around, trying to making meaning of each and every one would have driven us crazy. Our brains have, therefore, developed a way by which it keeps out those words it does not want to listen to and to focus on only those that matter. And much like our aquatic neighbours, we are so drowned in words that we do not stop to even take conscious note of everything we hear—any more than a fish stops to admire the water it is swimming in.
However, not taking note of all the words that stream into our consciousness does not necessarily mean we are not affected by them. The truth is that whether we recognise it or not, we are affected by the words we hear. Even words that are not directed at us can affect us. And when these words slip into our minds, they can linger on for a while—sometimes, hiding beyond our consciousness.
Of the many words that affect us, there are two broad classifications—abstract words and concrete words. The latter refers to words that identify measurable and observable attributes. Concrete words include words such as chair, pen, smart phone, teacher, bottle, etc. Whereas the former, in contrast, refers to attributes that cannot be experienced through our physical senses, i.e. words that cannot be touched, smelt, seen, or felt. Abstracts words include words like humanity, education, clever, deceit, democracy, patriotism, victory, truth and pity.
In an average conversation, we use a mix of both concrete and abstract words. The way and manner in which an individual is able to mix these types of words goes a long way in determining the outcome of the conversation. Too much of one type affects the quality of the conversation.
Interestingly, it is common knowledge that using too much of the abstract type of words takes away from any conversation, making the meaning ambiguous and unclear. This is why certain subjects in school are so difficult to understand. If the teacher or lecturer of such a subject is unable to make the abstract more concrete, then the students are bound to struggle.
One area where many conversations occur and words get thrown around is at the front line of many businesses. On a daily basis, thousands, if not millions, of conversations go on between customers and front line employees. On a regular basis, customers make enquiries and service employees provide responses. Those interactions form the basis of business-customer relationships. As a matter of fact, the unit of each customer relationship is the business-customer interaction. In other words, these interactions can make or mar a relationship. If a conversation does not turn out the way a customer wants it, the business involved could end up losing that customer to the competition.
If one thinks of the fact that conversations make up relationships and words make up conversations, then a single word can actually destroy or help build up a relationship. But of concrete and abstract words, which kind are more effective in building great relationships with one’s customers? What should be the focus of customer-facing employees when talking to customers?
These questions were the basis of a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research. The brains behind the study were Grant Packard, an associate professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business, York University in Toronto, Canada and Jonah Berger, another associate professor of marketing at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in the United States. The study was titled “How Concrete Language Shapes Customer Satisfaction”.
To get to the bottom of the issue, the researchers undertook a number of separate studies. In the first study, they studied the contents of spoken communication using 200 audio recordings of customer service calls from a US-based online clothing shop. They sought to find out if customer satisfaction was higher when CSEs used more concrete words in their interactions.
In the second study, the researchers analysed the contents of written communication using emails from a Canadian firm. This study involved 941 customer service interactions made of a customer’s email and a reply by a service employee. The idea was to find out if customers made more purchases in response to sales communication that used more concrete words.
The researchers then did three experiments where they manipulated various variables to ascertain the veracity of their findings. In these experiments, participants were made to imagine various customer service interaction scenarios and later were made to fill a questionnaire.
The findings were quite revealing.
The studies revealed that, true to the expectations of the researchers, customers are more satisfied, willing to purchase, and purchase more when employees speak to them concretely. For instance, using a word such as “top” to refer to an apparel was less concrete than using a more specific word like “T-shirt”. To make this more concrete, the CSE can go further and add an adjective or a number of adjectives. A “red Polo shirt with white collar” is a far more concrete description than a “top”. “The vehicle you were interested in has just been brought in, sir” is a good statement. However, it is less concrete and therefore, less effective than “The black Mercedes Benz C-class you were interested in has just been brought into our showroom at Dzorwulu Junction, sir.”
Through the experiments, the researchers inferred that the reason for this trend was because customers felt employees who used more concrete language were more attentive to the needs of customers. Customers were of the opinion that CSEs who were more concrete in their communication listened better.
When customers believe a CSE is really paying attention to them, it makes those customers feel very important. And who does not want to feel important? Customers would therefore keep coming back to a place where they are made to feel important, places where they are made to believe that they really matter.
Another study published in a January 2017 edition of the Peer J journal could also provide an additional reason why concrete words have much more of an impact than abstract words. The study, titled “Concrete vs Abstract words – What do you Recall Better? A Study on Dual Coding Theory”, involved 298 volunteers who were divided into two groups. One group was given a list of abstract words while the other group was given a list of concrete words. The participants were then asked to recall and write down as many of the words as they could within a two-minute period. Not surprisingly, those given the concrete had a better recall than those given the abstract words.
By extension therefore, it can be argued that by using more concrete words in their conversations, front line employees help customers to better recall the conversation. The lasting effect of these conversations would more likely endear that customer to the organisation. If a customer is unable to readily recall a conversation due to the use of more abstract words, it makes the possibility of that customer migrating to the competition more likely.
There was another study that proved that when faced with new words, individuals are faster at discovering and learning new concrete words then they were at learning the meaning of new abstract words. Another study showed that abstract concepts were far more difficult to process and are acquired later than concrete concepts.
All in all, it seems the use of more concrete words in one’s conversations is more advantageous than the increased use of abstract words. It therefore makes perfect sense for customer-handling employees to ensure that in their regular dealings with customers they make use of more concrete words.
One way to go about effecting a change in the language used by CSEs is to resort to scripting. The challenge with giving front line staff a script to use is that it can easily turn every interaction into a lifeless, robotic conversation. This would turn customers off. A better option would be to use scripts to guide CSEs while allowing them to resort to their natural way of communicating. However, the best way is to make the use of concrete words a part of the lexicon of the customer-serving employee. In that way, speaking in more concrete terms becomes second nature to the individual.
As competition intensifies in almost every sector, industry and market, every little advantage that an organisation has would make a big difference. From the above discussion, it is clear that every single word counts when it comes to winning over and maintaining the relationship with one’s customers. Front line employees must therefore be encouraged to mind their language.