The Humanising (or De-Humanising) Impact of Language on Customer Service

In a nutshell

The words that we use to describe or “label”  our customers have an impact on our behaviour towards them. Do people in your team refer to customers in a positive way, or are they referred to in negative terms such as “pains”? An interesting research study shows the power of language to humanise or de-humanise people – with powerful impacts on behaviour.


You are having a quiet conversation with a friend at a local café. Your friend sees another person walk towards your table. She quietly says to you, “Oh, no, this guy is an idiot! I hope he doesn’t see us” You have never met this guy, who has now stopped at your table to say ‘hi’. What is your reaction to this person that you have never met? My guess is that it will be less than positive. There is a good chance that you will be hoping that this person does not invite himself to join the two of you for a coffee. All because of one word – “idiot”.

What we have just witnessed here is the power of verbal labels ie the words that we use to describe people. I was reminded of this point when reading Shep Hyken’s very practical book, “Amaze Every Customer Every Time.”  The message in one of his chapters is that our vocabulary affects our behaviour.

Now let me thicken the plot and take you to an experiment that I came across in the book, Influencer, The Power to Change Anything (Kerry Patterson and others). The celebrated psychologist, Dr Albert Bandura conducted an experiment that demonstrated the power of verbal labels on behaviour.

Dr Bandura told the subjects that they would be helping to train students from another college by giving them electric shocks if they made errors. The subjects had the choice of administering, over 10 rounds of “tests”, 10 levels of intensity of electric shocks – from low to high.

The real experiment centred on what the subjects overheard when the assistant was talking to the experimenter. Under one condition, the assistant was overheard to say that the students were “nice”. Under another condition, subjects heard the assistant refer to the students as “animals”.

The question was, “what impact would the labels “nice” or “animals” have on the intensity of the electric shocks that were given out.

Dr Bandura found that the subjects were more likely to deliver increased levels of electric shocks to the students that were described to be “animals”.

So what happened here? The one word labels “nice” or “animals had the impact of humanising, or dehumanising the students. This in turn affected the intensity of the pain that subjects were prepared to inflict on students.

Now, imagine that you are sitting at a table. This time, it’s not at a café. It’s at your workplace.

Listen to the language of your team members. Do you ever hear team members calling your internal or external customers “Pains”? “Ignorant”? ‘Stupid”? ‘Demanding?’ Unreasonable”? ‘Impatient”? Or are they described in more positive terms such as “Guests”, “Boss”, “Neighbour” (thanks Shep, nice example from Ace Hardware), or, even, affectionately, “Customer”!

When team members refer to customers in negative terms, it has a de-humanising impact. It’s really tough to give positive, caring service to people who you have labelled as being “Difficult”. You are mentally setting yourself up for a battle rather than a caring experience. And, in the same way, when you humanise the customers by referring to them as Guests, Boss or “the reason for our existence”, then, through thick or thin, you will treat them with respect and great care.

And one last word for service leaders.

Your team members are watching you and listening to the words that you say.

Make sure that the labels that you give to internal or external customers are always positive. If they are not, then you are most likely to start an avalanche of less than caring behaviour from your team to your customers. And, if you hear a team member using negative labels to describe customers, nip it at the bud. Empathise if your team member has had a hard time with a customer, but do not let the language of negativity creep into your team. Because if you do, the language will be reflected in the quality of care that your team delivers to your customers.

And no one will know why.

Until next time.


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