When different communication styles matter

By Grant Packard

Over the last few years, sophisticated technologies and methods for analyzing language at massive scales have helped researchers shed new light on the importance of language in marketing settings. The conclusion? Seemingly insignificant choices about the words marketers use, and when they use them, can have a significant impact on customer attitudes and purchases.

Taking advantage of these insights can help marketing organizations stay one step ahead of the competition. By training salespeople or front-line employees, not to mention ‘training’ marketing automation platforms and Chatbots to use the right words at the right time, marketers can make sure their words are working for them.

Some of the latest findings on this front come from my own research at the Schulich School of Business, work I did with colleagues from The Wharton School in the U.S. and CKGSB in China. We recently used machine learning and econometric methods to analyze the text from thousands of conversational moments across hundreds of customer-employee service conversations at a major retailer and a major airline. Our goal was to try to solve a problem known as the ‘warmth-competence paradox.’ What is this supposed paradox? In sales and service, past research finds that friendly, warm employees are seen as less competent. But competent, solution-focused employees seem cold and unfriendly.

How to address this problem? Most firms pick one of the two approaches and live with the consequences. Because solving a customer’s problem or opportunity is usually the goal of sales and service, our interviews and surveys found most organizations prioritize competence. They also prioritize time, which makes competently addressing the customer’s needs or wants seems like the most cost-efficient approach.

Our research shows this approach is flawed. Because our method allows us to consider “when” in a conversation different words signal warmth or competence, we can tease apart whether an  employee’s use of such words helps or hurts important outcomes like customer satisfaction and actual purchase behaviour. What we learned was that sales and service people need to be BOTH warm and competent, but at different times.

Specifically, across all kinds of different sales/service conversations at firms in different industries, customers were more satisfied when employees used warmer words at a conversation’s start and end. Competent language works the opposite way: it is actually costly at the start and end but enhances customer satisfaction and purchases when emphasized in the conversation’s middle. A series of large-scale controlled experiments corroborated these real world results.

On its face, this recommendation might seem obvious. Sure employees should be friendly in the first few moments of an interaction. But this about more than just “being friendly.” Words matter. The most common words service employees start with language like “What can I do for you today?” or “How might I assist you?” That’s not signaling warmth though, but competence. It’s an offer to help solve a problem. Instead, say something as simple as “How are you today?” or “I hope you’re enjoying this fine day” before jumping to the business at hand. Doing so has a measurable impact on satisfaction and purchases. For another example, take apologies. Using words like “sorry” or “forgive me” in the conversation’s middle (rather than the start or end), had a negative effect. Our modeling and experiments suggest this is because the middle of a conversation shouldn’t be about warm and caring regrets, but about finding solutions.

Marketers who use automated Chatbots or other generative large language models to communicate with consumers are already starting to use these findings by incorporating examples of the temporal impact of warm and competent words as part of ‘training’ the datasets used to produce customer-facing language in real time. Similarly, customer service or salespeople are being trained on these and other ways that words shape customer attitudes and behavior. Speaking only of our own research, for example, we’ve published findings that employees who refer to themselves in singular rather than plural first person (I vs. We can look into that for you) and who use more specific, concrete words to describe the customer’s interests (I can help you find the right laptop vs. I can help you find the right option) enhance satisfaction and purchases. Giving employees examples of similar phrases using warm vs. competent words, singular vs. plural pronouns, and concrete vs. abstract words can help them think about how to communicate, and help you improve marketing outcomes.

Marketers who have transcripts of sales or service conversations linked to outcomes that they measure (e.g., survey results, sales data), they can try out our automated analysis approach using their own data for free at http://www.whenlanguagematters.net. Marketers who have access to data scientists can use the code posted at that web page to perform more customizable automated text analysis of the words they have available.


Grant Packard is an Associate Professor and Director of the Master of Marketing Program at the Schulich School of Business at York University. He is a globally recognized expert on how language used in a range of marketing contexts shapes consumer beliefs and behaviours, and how the words consumers share in online reviews can shed light on their attitudes, motivations, and word-of-mouth persuasion. Packard’s original research articles, including the article When Language Matters discussed above, can be found at https://tinyurl.com/scholargrant-packard.

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