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Do you speak your customers’ love language?

Most people who have been in a relationship have probably heard of The Five Love Languages. These are things people do to express love and that make them feel loved in return, boiled down into five “languages” that include: acts of service, quality time, words of affirmation, gifts, and touch. We all have a love language. For example, I don’t care about flowers or jewelry. When someone gives them to me, I appreciate the thought but feel awkward because I know the gestures meant more to the person gifting them than to me. I want to match their enthusiasm, so my reaction isn’t disappointing, but inside my response is a flat, “Oh. That was nice. Thanks.”

But when somebody helps me fix the burned out bulb in my car’s headlamp, or sorts and files away a dusty pile of documents, I’m like, “Take me now, sailor!”

Love languages apply to all our relationships, not just the romantic ones. This includes customer relationships. And just like in romantic relationships, if we’re speaking different languages, our efforts at showing customers we care about them can result in that desultory, “Oh. That was nice. Thanks.”

Lost in translation

In customer service, agents speak to people who have all sorts of personalities and love languages of their own. To really connect, an agent needs to understand what a customer’s service “love” language is. One former contact center leader shared that she had every customer advocate undergo DiSC profile training—Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, and Conscientiousness. Essentially, it’s the same principle as the love languages.

If we're speaking different languages, our efforts at showing customers we care about them can result in that desultory, "Oh. That was nice. Thanks."

A Dominance-oriented person, for example, gets straight to the point and sees the big picture. A Conscientiousness-oriented person wants the details and fears being wrong. Once you know this, it becomes easy to see how thing might go awry when a Dominance agent is talking to a Conscientious customer, or vice versa—unless the agent understands that other people are different and they need to use a different language.

Just understanding that people value different ways of being treated is a huge step toward providing better customer service. The way customers express themselves and the words they use can provide clues, and the first key is to listen for them.

Her could never have happened

You know that movie Her, where a guy falls in love with a computer? It couldn’t happen. Why? Because computers don’t listen! I mean, the computer, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, was receptive, empathetic, and generations ahead of Siri or Alexa. Today, either one might reply to an impassioned, “I love you” with a smooth: “Here’s what I found for olive oil.”

Unfortunately, customer service agents can come off the same way. Halfway through your explanation, they interrupt and erroneously summarize your problem, forcing you to start all over again. Or, they whisk you off to hold music purgatory on the way to tech support, which is not what you actually needed.

Maybe those customer service agents are well-meaning Dominants, thinking they’re doing you a favor by anticipating your needs. Or maybe they just assume they know where you’re going and don’t care to hear you ramble—they’re listening for key words. What that communicates is that they’ve got better things to do, despite the time and effort you’re spending to get your problem resolved.

By actively listening, agents make the customer feel heard—very important to customer satisfaction—as

It’s what you say, and the way you say it

With the DiSC system, for example, agents learn to recognize by the way someone is talking how they might want to be treated. Influence-oriented people, for example, tend to be friendly and enthusiastic, and will be put off by a customer service agent who doesn’t share or mirror that warm, chatty demeanor.

Steadiness-oriented customers value authenticity and aren’t likely to feel good about a transaction—or commit to any business choice—until they feel a sense of trust.

Agents can also pick up clues from the specific words people use, according to language psychology expert Jack Schafer.

He writes: “The simple sentence ‘I walked’ consists of the pronoun ‘I,’ which is the subject and the word ‘walked,’ which is the verb. Any words added to this basic sentence structure modify the quality of the noun or the action of the verb. These deliberate modifications provide clues to the personality and behavioral characteristics of the speaker or writer.”

For example, Schafer explains, if someone said something was “hard,” it suggests they value goals that are difficult to achieve. If they say they “decided” something, it may indicate that they value weighing different options. The word “right” can indicate that a customer has a strong focus on making correct moral choices, at least according to their own value system. It can also indicate inflexibility.

Within the contact center, learning the DiSC signs, and responding to them appropriately, becomes a kind of game that everyone can excel at. It can be rewarding to figure out a customer’s love language and nail the support interaction—a lot more rewarding than receiving a lukewarm response or a bad customer satisfaction rating.

It can be rewarding to figure out a customer’s love language and nail the support interaction—a lot more rewarding than receiving a lukewarm response or a bad customer satisfaction rating.

Similarly, Harvard Business Review published a piece that mentioned a UK-based mortgage company that teaches customer service representatives to listen for clues to a customer’s personality type. The reps are looking for “controllers,” “thinkers,” “feelers,” or “entertainers,” and they tailor their responses accordingly, offering a balance of detail and speed suitable to the personality type diagnosed.

That strategy has reduced repeat calls by 40 percent.

Get in to the word game

If you’ve ever seen someone silently struggle with how to respond to a gift you gave them—20 pounds of smoky cheddar, slippers in the shape of Dalmatian heads—you know how unsatisfactory it feels to get it wrong. But you probably also know how it feels to get it right—especially when you had to stretch your powers of perception, imagination, and empathy to get there. In customer service, making a customer feel heard, or special, can feel amazing. The customer’s lift in tone or energy is hard to miss, as is an enthusiastic “thank you” email. Listening for a love language can make the role of customer service agent more challenging and interesting, too.

Learning about, and exercising, the efficient use of love languages isn’t just good for business and relationships—

Susan Lahey is a journalist who lives in Austin and writes about everything that piques her curiosity including travel, technology, work, business, art, sustainability, and cultivating deep, messy, exquisite humanness in the digital age.