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The next time you make a complaint to your cellphone or cable company, don’t get personal.


New research from the UBC Sauder School of Business, published recently in the Journal of Applied Psychology, has found that what you say to customer service employees can determine the quality of service you receive. For example, personally targeting employees by saying, “Your product is garbage” instead of “This product is garbage,” can trigger negative responses from service employees.

“We know that customer service quality suffers when customers are rude or aggressive to employees,” said study co-author Danielle van Jaarsveld, associate professor at UBC Sauder. “But our research is one of the first to pinpoint the specific words service employees hear from customers that can undermine the quality of customer service.”

The researchers analyzed 36 hours of calls and over 100,000 words between a Canadian call centre’s customers and employees through transcript and computerized text analysis in a multi-level, multi-source, mixed-method field study. They found that more than 80 per cent of the calls contained aggressive customer language or interruptions. When customers were not aggressive towards employees, fewer than five per cent of calls had customer service problems, such as an employee making a blunt comment or using a raised voice.

But, when customers targeted their aggression using second person pronouns (e.g. you, your) and interrupted the employee, customer service worsened in more than 35 per cent of calls. The researchers also found that these problematic effects were significantly reduced when customers used positive words like great and fine, suggesting that customers might be able to help employees provide better service by using more positive words.

“In general, when customers use aggressive words or phrases to personally target customer service employees, or when they interrupt the person they are talking to, we found that the employee’s negative reaction is much stronger,” said van Jaarsveld.

Based on these findings, researchers say customers can get better service from call centre employees through their choice of language and ability to follow conversation rules. Mixing positive language into the conversation can also lessen some stress that service employees experience on the job and result in better customer service.

“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,” added van Jaarsveld. “Employees can handle a lot, but when aggressive language and interruptions happen together—combined with minimal positive language from the customer—employees get to a point where customer service quality suffers. Customers need to remember that they’re dealing with human beings.”