The key to any successful relationship is effective communication. In the business world, this means trying to understand what consumers and clients are saying, and responding to them in ways that reflect that understanding. For the most part, however, the way businesses have used language to persuade, satisfy, or rectify has been more art than science.

The retail world in particular abounds with catch-phrases, habits, and commonly copied templates: “Say it with a smile.” “Never say no.” But do these and other long-held tips about how to speak to customers really work?

It is now clear, that some of the time-honored truths of customer service interactions fail to hold up to scientific scrutiny. You can, for example, say “sorry” to a customer too many times. Even if you’re a member of the company’s team, it is often better to say “I” than “we.” And not every piece of communication needs to be perfect; sometimes, a few mistakes produces a better result than flawlessness.

Be Human…

Research analyzing language among customers and between employees and customers, suggests a personal touch is crucial. This is particularly important given the growing frequency of conversations that happen via technology rather than in-person. Here are a few tips based on the latest research:

Speak as an individual, not part of a team. While companies and employees believe they should refer to themselves as “we” when talking to customers, research shows this practice is less than ideal. It was found that company representatives who referred to themselves in the singular voice (e.g., “I”, “me”, or “my”) were perceived to be acting and feeling more on behalf of customers than those who adopted less personal plural pronouns (“we” or “our”).

Share the same words. People who mimic the language of the person they’re interacting with are trusted and liked more. For example, in response to a customer inquiry such as “Will my shipment arrive soon?” an agent would be better off saying “Yes, your shipment will arrive tomorrow,” rather than “Yes, it’s being delivered tomorrow.”

First, relate. Expressing empathy and caring through “relational” words is critical in the first part of service interactions. Relational words are verbs and adverbs that demonstrate concern (e.g., please, thank you, sorry) as well as signal agreement (e.g., yes, uh huh, okay).

… And Then Take Charge

While using words that establish a more personal rapport with customers is important out of the gate, research suggests that once they’ve shown they’re listening, employees should shift gears towards more assertive language.

Move from relating to solving.  After an initial period in which the employee demonstrates their empathy for the customer’s needs, hearing employees say “sorry” and other “relating” words had little effect on customer satisfaction. customers wanted employees to “take charge” of the conversation which called for a shift to “solving” verbs (e.g., get, go call, do, put, need, permit, allow, resolve). 

Be specific.  After the introductory phase of a conversation, when agents must show they are listening, customers see employees as more helpful when they use more concrete language. For example, for a clothing retailer, “sneakers” is more concrete than “shoes.” Using more concrete language signals to the customer that the agent is psychologically “closer” to the customer’s personal needs.

Don’t beat around the bush.  Subtle variations in the words used to endorse a product or action can have substantial effects. For example, people are more persuasive when they use words that explicitly endorse the product to the customer rather than language that implicitly does so by sharing the speaker’s personal attitude towards a product or service.

As more and more conversations with consumers move online and to other text-based formats, using the right language becomes more important. Research analyzing language shows simple solutions to improve how companies engage with their customers.

Read more on the right language to use with customers.