Are You Sending The Wrong Signals To Your Customers?

girl with purple hairOne of the boons of being a blogger is that I have a platform to parade all my pet peeves. I’m sure you have your favorites, and I hope you’ll share some of them in the comment section. 

As a lifelong lover of language (and alliteration), here’s one thing I can’t stand:

The use of clichés, particularly in public presentations. 

If you really want to see me cringe, take me to an event where the emcee introduces a celebrity speaker or a band with the following words:

“Without further ado…”

Give me a break! Couldn’t you come up with something a bit more original?

Unless we’re quoting Shakespeare, when do we ever use the word “ado”? The only time I’ve heard that word used, is when an American tries to say goodbye in French. 

Another expression that makes me swiftly search for a sick sack is:

“Sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.”

The last time I heard those horrible words was when I was crammed into my seat like a sardine because the theater was so small. I could barely move my legs, let alone lean back into my chair because I would have ended up in someone’s lap. The show itself was thoroughly unenjoyable which made me feel very tense. 

For my latest and greatest pet peeve, I have to take you to the wacky world of customer service.

EATING OUT

A young nose-ringed waitress named Molly looked like she had spent most of her tip money on tattoos and purple hair color. 

That’s just an observation. Not a value judgment. Some of her tattoos were actually quite tasteful. Here’s what happened next.

When I thanked Molly for handing me the menu, she said:

“No problem.”

When I ordered the drinks, she said:

“No problem.”

When I asked her to repeat the specials, she said:

“No problem.”

When I asked if I could have the salad dressing on the side, she said:

.. ……. 

and always in the same way, stressing the “pro” in “problem.”

“Yes,” I joked. “It would be a bit of a problem if half a cup of that awful French dressing would end up all over my frozen iceberg lettuce, wouldn’t it?”

Without skipping a beat Molly robotically responded:

“No problem.”

I decided to have a little bit more fun with this poor girl, and asked:

“Molly, before you go… would it be okay if we order dessert after we’ve had the main course?”

“No problem,” said Molly, and she walked away.

Amazed I turned to my wife and said: “I bet you Molly has no idea that she sounds like a broken record. Her responses were completely automatic. It’s almost scary.”

Thankfully, we enjoyed a completely unproblematic meal that was quite delicious. At least our server was a woman of her word.

LINGUISTIC MANIPULATION

Now, I’m sure you’ll agree that Molly isn’t the only one who graduated from the school of customer service where nothing is ever a problem.

This trite “no problem” response is ridiculously rampant in retail, and I’ve witnessed countless clueless colleagues use it in speech and in writing.

If so many people are using it, why then do I make such a big deal about an innocent expression? Isn’t this Much ado about nothing? To tell you the truth, it isn’t, and I’ll prove it to you.

Language is manipulative in nature. Right at this very moment, the words that you are reading are creating sounds and images in your head. They determine what you focus on.

Let’s try something fun, shall we?

If I tell you: “Don’t think of a pink elephant,” what are you thinking of?

If I ask you: “Forget about what you had for dinner last night,” what is the first thing that comes to mind?

You see, even if I instruct you NOT to think of something, it pops up, doesn’t it? It has to do with the way our mind operates. It has a hard time processing negatives. It works like this:

We can’t think of what we don’t want to think about without thinking about it first.

Please repeat this last line five times before you proceed. 

Getting back to mysterious Molly, what did she force us to focus on with her repeated “No problem”?

It’s rather obvious, isn’t it?

And that’s precisely the problem. There was no problem in the first place, yet Molly’s words made us entertain the idea that something could be wrong. Now, why on earth would you want to do that, especially in a client-customer relationship?

If anything, wouldn’t you want your clients to focus on something perfectly positive and pleasant?

THE UNCONSCIOUS MIND

I am convinced that most people don’t make us focus on negative things on purpose. Like Molly, they probably don’t even realize that they’re doing it.  

As a professional communicator, I find this fascinating. The language we choose -consciously or unconsciously- reveals something about our thought processes. Words and sounds (and gestures) are external representations of what’s going on internally. The way people speak tells us something about how they think, and how they experience the world. Here’s an example.

You ask two people the same, simple question: “How are you doing today?”

Number one says: “I can’t complain.”

Number two answers: “I’m very well, thank you.”

What do these very different answers tell you?

Let’s assume someone wants to ask you for a favor. There are a million ways to pop the question, but let’s look at the following ways to introduce that request:

“I know it’s a pain, but…”

“Can I trouble you?”

“Sorry to bother you…”

“You wouldn’t mind, would you?”

“I realize it’s a lot to ask, but…”

Now, why would someone pick one of the above expressions versus:

“Is it okay if I…?”

“Could you please give me a hand?”

“Do you have a moment?”

“I could use some help…”

“You seem really good at this. Could you…”

The first five lines assume the worst. The words that stick out are pain, trouble, and bother. They tell us what the speaker wants to avoid. People who use this negative approach tend to focus on what they don’t want. They’re more driven by fear and perceived limitations.

The next five lines come from people who are more likely to focus on a positive outcome. They tend to think in possibilities instead of in problems, and they focus on what they want.

TURNING THE TABLES

Here’s where it gets even more interesting. Those who habitually use more negative or more positive language while communicating with others, will use the same language when talking to themselves. This gives us some insight into how people motivate themselves, and how we can best motivate them.

The real clash in communication comes when you have a  service provider (like a voice talent) with a positive outlook, talking to a client who tends to focus on all the things that could go wrong. How would you convince such a client that you’re the right person for the job?

The mistake many people make is that they keep on using the language they are used to using. What they should do instead, is frame their proposition in a way that would appeal to the clients’ model of the world. They could start by saying something like this:

“Don’t worry. There’s no reason why this wouldn’t work out. Would you mind telling me what your deadline is?”

And what would you say when the client gives you his deadline?

Precisely! You’d say:

“No problem.”

At that moment your client will probably thank his lucky stars that he finally found someone who won’t mess his project up!

As far as I’m concerned, that is one of the only occasions it pays off to use negative language. It is a subtle way of telling your clients that you think alike. People who are like each other, have a tendency to like each other. 

It won’t surprise you that the more successful people in life are naturally good at focusing on what they want. Their self-talk is more upbeat and positive, and they exude confidence. They’ve discovered that what they’re focusing on consistently, is more likely to materialize. That’s why they concentrate on positive outcomes. You can clearly hear it in the way they speak.

Instead of saying “This will probably never work,” they say: “I believe I can do this!”

A SHIFT IN THINKING

Why don’t we go back to the restaurant to see what happened with Molly? Did she finally realize what she was doing?

Well, it took her a while, but I think she eventually did.

When we had finished our meal, I asked Molly for the dessert menu.

“No problem”

“A strawberry sorbet for my wife, and a tiramisu for me, please.”

“No problem.”

“Molly, when you have a chance, could you bring me the check?”

“No problem.”

“I guess it’s alright if I don’t include a tip today?”

“No prob…”

Molly stopped in mid-sentence, and I could see the wheels starting to spin slowly but surely.

“Well, Sir, I’m afraid that would be a bit of a problem.”

I smiled at her, and said: “I was only joking. You did a terrific job. Of course I’ll include a tip!”

A few weeks later we returned to the same restaurant, and there was Molly.

“Nice to see you again!” I said. “Could you perhaps start us off with two ice teas?”

Molly laughed, and said:

“My pleasure!”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: San Diego Comic-Con International 2012: It’s a purple hair day via photopin (license)

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  1. I too have had these same observations. Even in my own communicating…very telling.
    As for Molly…1 down, several million to go…we hope. 🙂

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  2. Paul,

    Great food for thought! #1: I can identify some of these propensities in myself (example, I don’t want to bother you, but…). I will watch out for those and try to reframe them in a more positive light.

    #2: Genius! “I wish I had thought of it first.” Of course – reflect the language your client uses back to them. It will make them feel more comfortable.

    Thanks for giving me something to think about!

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    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    My pleasure, Andrea. I firmly believe that words change minds. Word are powerful tools, and most people aren’t even aware of how they use these tools.

    Being aware of the way we speak is step one. Step two is to catch ourselves in the act when we’re about to say something less than positive. Step three is to consciously change these words into something more positive. Step four is to repeat this process until it has become automatic.

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  3. Paul,

    Grat story with impact. I wonder how she changed to saying my pleasure. For voice-over artist yes my pleasure to gladly do all i can to make everything great.

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  4. I couldn’t agree with you more in this, Paul, and the “no problem” platform is one of my top pet peeves as well. I do feel that our choice of language, whether spoken or written (since email is often how we communicate these days) is a great indicator of attitude. I often find that I try to match the “attitude” that I perceive in an email (i.e. I’ll write a short response to a quick question) since that’s probably how that person likes to communicate. And it’s a good reminder of how our personal communication can reveal something not only to our clients but to everyone else. Be aware. Your words are a total giveaway of your emotional state.

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    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    This is true for professional as well as personal communication. Wordsmith Stephen Sondheim put it beautifully in his song Children will listen:

    “Careful the things you say
    Children will listen
    Careful the things you do
    Children will see
    And learn.”

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  5. LOL Paul… spends most of her tips on tats and her purple hair 🙂 Sometimes when I read your blogs they ring true for me personally. I realized as reading that when I ask for assistance from someone that I often put a negative before the asking. ( I have a hard time asking for help 🙂 VERY helpful advice for me on a personal level. Thank you Paul !

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    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    You’re very welcome, Sally!

    Be aware of how you talk to yourself, and how that can affect you. If you say that you’re having “a VERY HARD time” asking for help, that’s how you’re turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Changing the way you speak to yourself from negative to positive, will have a tremendous effect on the way you feel, and the way you act.

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  6. Disliking a dull dessert, I informed the young waiter.
    He cheerfully agreed “Yes, it’s sick, isn’t it”.
    This was before the word had reversed its meaning.

    ‘No problem’ was not yet an auto response, and he did discount the bill.

    Mixed signals, but we left amused and pleased. Sincerity wins.

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  7. I won’t lie: I’m guilty of saying “no problem”! I’ve made a mental note, though, of staying to the positive by using “you’re most welcome”, “it’s my pleasure” or “I’m happy to accommodate you”. In VO work, I usually thank the client for hiring me, number one. Two, when they give me a deadline, it’s always, “I can do that” or a simple “okay, I’ve got it down on the calendar and I’ll start recording today”. The “no problem” thing isn’t irritating to me, much, anymore, and I ignore it. But, when I do it, I recognize that it’s a bad habit and THAT’S irritating! Thanks for another generous helping of food-for-thought, Paul!

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    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    My pleasure, Kent!

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  8. Yep, there are plenty of words to go around, each with a precise meaning. So, when the wrong words are chosen, they convey the wrong message.

    It’s interesting that so many people change their speech habits to those used by others. I cannot understand why someone who had never before used upspeak (the “Valley Girl” method of inflecting the end each statement as if it were a question) would suddenly begin using it.

    The same this is true of “no problem.” Until maybe a decade or so ago, this wasn’t… (ahem)… a problem. Someone used it and it somehow spread like wildfire. As you pointed out, Paul, these are incorrect words to respond to most questions; especially if they are requests and, even more importantly, if used in business situations.

    A great meme I’d seen floating around on Facebook (and ultimately saved) states:
    “If you are in business, and a customer asks for something or says ‘thank you,’ the proper response is NOT ‘No problem.’ Why? ‘Problem’ is a word that should be avoided in business conversations. Your role is to serve the needs of your customers. Better responses would be ‘You’re welcome’ or ‘My pleasure.'”

    Using the word “problem” where it is not expected leads customers to think there might somehow otherwise BE a problem. And, if that’s the case, they could easily decide to do business elsewhere, where problems don’t exist. Never give a client a reason to even think for a split second of going elsewhere.

    Thanks, Paul, for reminding us to keep the “can-do” outlook at all times.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    People usually change their accents (and attitudes) to try to fit in, or move upward on the social ladder. Sometimes it happens naturally and over time. When I first came to the States, I had a very British accent. Now that I have lived here for over 15 years, it’s become more American.

    I don’t think the word problem should be completely banned from business conversations. As I had hoped to demonstrate in my vignette about the client who was used to using negative language, one of the ways to create rapport is to use that language back to him. The next step would be to bring that client from a problem-state to a solution-state by pointing at the resource that is YOU!

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    Juliette gray Reply:

    In Australia everyone says no worries.

    How does that compare to no problem?

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    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    It’s another example of the same principle, very much like “no doubt,” or when someone says “don’t be nervous,” or “don’t be afraid.” Words like these instruct the listener to focus on the negative.