Overusing Customers' Names Feels Like Forced Sincerity
Contact center agents have a difficult job. They need to be warm and empathetic. They need to help customers find the right answers. They need to convey sincerity. And they’re expected to do it all in under three minutes. Sound impossible? Given the turnover in the contact center industry, maybe it is.
You’ve certainly experienced this: an agent who is attempting to force friendliness and personalization by overusing your name. You wince a little each time, but you don’t want to make a fuss, because that would seem petty. The problem is that you can’t force sincerity. Contact center managers should help their agents find the right language to walk the line between friendly, personalized but sincere as well as efficient.
A recent study in the Journal of Sociolinguistics sheds some light on a key feature of call center communication: the linguistic strategies drawn on by call center agents to build rapport with customers. The paper’s author, Anna Kristina Hultgren, Lecturer in English Language and Applied Linguistics at The Open University, described her methodology and her results in a blog post for The Conversation U.S.
She found that while many contact centers encourage a number of linguistic strategies to build rapport with customers, contact center agents were most likely to use the one perceived as the quickest “shortcut”: using the customer’s first name. When it happens too often, it starts to sound rather absurd.
“You may be used to a Starbucks barista asking for your name, but here it has a business-related function: to distinguish customers’ drinks orders from one another,” wrote Hultgren. “In call centers, the purpose is purely to build rapport. In both contexts, it can feel cringey.”
It’s not surprising, however, given that agents are often reminded that time is their biggest enemy. The first name feels like a quick way to meet time metrics. Agents are probably thinking less about quality of service and more about getting called on the carpet for taking too long with calls.
“Time is of the essence for a call center worker,” wrote Hultgren. “So the clear preference for using a customer’s name over other rapport-building strategies is that it’s a shortcut to providing a personalized service. With targets to meet – for call duration and the number of calls an agent must take in a day – agents are under pressure to perform.”
It’s up to call center management to understand that quality of service shouldn’t be sacrificed for time. An agent asking a customer how he/she liked a previous purchase (“How did you like the zip-up fleece?”) conveys personalization and breaks the monotony of constantly using the customer’s name. You may also wish to break agents of overuse of common “forced intimacy” phrases, such as “Have a nice day” in favor of more sincere phrases such as, “I’m glad to be of assistance” or “Thank you for being a customer.”
Edited by Alicia Young