Words Matter: Pay Attention to the Soft Stuff

Words Matter: pay attention to the soft stuff

Greg Smith had his Jerry Maguire moment last week. Rather than a mission statement, he chose a New York Times Op-Ed and told the world why he was quitting Goldman Sachs. Smith didn’t exactly demand ,”fewer clients and less money,” or “more attention for our clients….” the way Jerry did, but the thought was there.

In his piece Smith wrote, “I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail.” Ouch! [Goldman lost $2billion of its stock price after the letter came out].

Imagine for a moment that you run a call center. Or perhaps store or retail operations, or a field sales force. You instinctively know that a motivated, high performing team will put money in everyone’s pocket. Yours, your people, your company’s. You know that if you can get those moments of truth with the customer right, it makes good business sense. According to the  American Express® Global Customer Service Barometer seven in ten Americans are willing to spend an average of 13% more with companies they believe provide an excellent experience. Companies know this. They spend billions of dollars annually on better CRM systems** and pour similar amounts to the management and operations of call centers. If service and CRM can’t rescue the experience, the cycle begins again as customers leave and move to another brand. Rather than keeping your old customers, you are left with the more expensive business of acquiring new ones.

So why are we in this loop? And what have words got to do with money and customer experience? As Dicky Fox, Jerry’s trusted mentor might put it, “Jerry, it’s easier to manage the hard stuff than the soft stuff. But you have to manage the soft stuff.”

Dicky’s right. Customer Experience is the red-headed stepchild of business because in part, it’s easier to formulate and manage the business based around the hard stuff — putting in new CRM systems, changing call trees and routing in call centers, shifting the metrics by which you manage reps —  than it is around the soft stuff, like the words we use. We have to get both right, and if we don’t it costs real money.

WWDS (What Would Dicky Say?) He would tell you that Words Matter*. They shape behavior. Every group, from kids in a playground to executives at a board-table has a slang and shorthand that signifies membership. The words are a cultural marker that you’re “in” and “one of the gang.” This is no bad thing — it’s part of what creates community and a sense of belonging — vital to motivated, high performing teams.

What do you call the people who pay the bills?

Muppets Goldman Sachs Clients
Clampetts Airline Industry Infrequent leisure traveler
Seats Airline Industry Passengers
WorldJerks NorthWest’s Loyalty Program WorldPerks
Subs Wireless Industry Customers
Stamp-lickers Advertising Industry Direct Marketers
Deadbeats Credit Card Industry People who pay off their bills every month
Bobbleheads Advertising Industry People in agreement with their boss


At the now defunct NorthWest Airlines WorldPerks program, you can imagine how much harder it is for a service rep to be civil if the word on the inside for a difficult customer is WorldJerk. There are names that celebrate customers, and names that dismiss them. If you want to drive a better experience, pay attention to your message discipline. If you want to shape the message inside your organization, and be heard better on the outside, pay attention to what’s said.

*Dicky is my favorite character in Jerry Maguire. The quotes here never even made it to the cutting room floor. Consider them fan fiction. But I like to think that if Dicky really existed, he would have said things like this.

**According to IDC the CRM applications market alone is over $18 Billion. This does not include consulting, call center spend, etc.

Gavin_Animated-GifGavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

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