What language tricks do call center reps use to manipulate you?


Harvard Business Review has an interesting piece on the use of behavioral economics to tweak language in customer interactions over the phone.

A couple experiments illustrated the principles at work:

  •  In one experiment, the rep had to authorize a customer banking account before the customer could transfer funds. But the rep explaining “you can’t transfer funds until you go through these steps to authorize the account” scored significantly lower than the rep explaining “let me walk you through these steps to authorize the account.” While the language is subtly different, customers rated the latter as 82% higher quality and 73% lower effort.
  • In another experiment, customers were told they had to bring their new bicycles to a certified repair shop. The performance of the rep who simply stated “you’re best off bringing it into a repair shop” was rated significantly lower than that of the rep who noted that they’d “pass the customer’s feedback to the engineering department,” “check the database to see if a simple fix is possible,” and “recommend the customer bring the bicycle to the shop.” The latter scored 67% higher quality and 77% lower customer effort.

Such approaches go well beyond traditional soft skills. Instead, these rely on careful language choice to frame answers in the best possible way. This isn’t simply being empathetic — it’s calculated and anticipatory. We call it experience engineering.

And an example of this sort of “experience engineering” at work:

…imagine your 11:00 AM flight is cancelled and you need to be in Cleveland tomorrow morning. There’s an evening flight that’s open. Where most reps would simply say “I can put you on a flight leaving at 9:00pm” other reps, knowing full well the 9:00 PM flight was available but seeking to manipulate the customer’s reaction, might say “well, I know I can put you on the 7:00 AM flight tomorrow, but let me see what I can do to put you on the earlier flight, which is at 9:00 PM tonight.” This technique of experience engineering is more commonly called anchoring. A less-desirable option creates a mental anchor, making the best alternative seem more acceptable. Rather than be irritated that the 11:00 AM was cancelled, you’d probably be pleased that the rep has secured a seat for you on the evening flight.

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