“How can I help you, hon?”
“Can I get you anything else, dear?”
“Have a good day, sweetheart!”
These are the kinds of phrases and pet names you might expect to hear from your significant other, but they would probably be uncomfortable to hear from a complete stranger. Yet, these and other terms of endearment are used by customer service representatives all the time – and the discomfort they bring could hurt an organization’s reputation.
Customer service representatives communicate with countless different people every day, and their main goal is to provide a pleasant experience by fostering a positive relationship and earning a guest’s trust. Using terms of endearment is a tactic frequently used with the intention of creating an immediate sense of warmth and familiarity with a customer. Calling someone “sweetheart” or “hon” is an innocent and friendly way to welcome and refer to a guest… right?
Actually, our blanket answer to this question is a resounding “no!” We would argue that more often than not, using a pet name with a customer makes the customer feel uncomfortable and less likely to return. The harsh reality is that our customers are almost always strangers or mere acquaintances who are only taking part in a transactional relationship. While incorporating some interaction is always a great idea in order to create rapport, calling them “dear” gives an unearned sense of familiarity the customer can find jarring and disrespectful.
Why Are Terms of Endearment So Wrong?
One blogger wrote about an experience where a much younger male deli counter employee called her “sweetheart” during a transaction. This term was too familiar for a man she didn’t know, not to mention the lack of respect and formality of such a casual term for a complete stranger. Even worse, when she politely asked him not to refer to her this way, he was offended. This uncomfortable situation ultimately led to the blogger choosing a different grocery store.
The heart of the issue comes down to respect and self-awareness. The role of the customer is to pay money for a product or service to improve their lives, which in turn keeps a business profitable. At the end of the day, this is the extent of their relationship with an organization and its employees. Terms of endearment are reserved for significant others, children, parents, friends, and others with whom they have a meaningful relationship, not a stranger on the phone or behind a counter.
Some customer service representatives use terms of endearment as a tool because they believe it will help form an instant connection between themselves and the customer. However, a lot of the time it does just the opposite. It immediately puts the customer in a position that they might not want to be in. When terms of endearment are used outside of meaningful relationships, it often infantilizes the person in a situation where they have already come to the representative for some sort of service or help. It tips the scales of power uncomfortably, and sometimes inappropriately, off-kilter.
Whether or not you meant to, these terms can also come across sexist, ageist, or otherwise offensive and condescending. This isn’t to mention the different ways it could be taken cross-culturally. In cultures where holding respect and honor for elders is strictly upheld, referring to an older customer as “sweetie” could be extremely insulting.
Does Everyone Feel This Way?
No – there are likely plenty of people who find terms of endearment reassuring and pleasant as customers. It’s just extremely tricky for a representative to make a good judgment call when most service communications are fleeting and impersonal. It’s true that a regular at a diner might be okay with their waitress calling them “hon” after months as a patron, but instances where an employee has the time to develop actual camaraderie with a customer are the exception to the rule.
This is why it’s better to default to a method of referring to customers which is consistent and respectful rather than play a guessing game. The risk of making many customers uncomfortable isn’t worth the reward of making a few feel just a little bit better.
So… What Should We Do?
Luckily we have a simple answer for you: use the customer’s name. Ask them what they would like to be called at the beginning of the interaction and use what they tell you until the end. It may seem obvious, and it may seem vanilla, but we can tell you this: nobody will feel uncomfortable being called by their own name. It’s the most consistent, appropriate, and respectful way to address your customers. Don’t just take it from us, writers from Forbes and The Guardian concur with this consumer opinion – “Stop Calling Me, ‘Hon’!”
We have over 30 years of experience in training teams like yours for success, and we can’t wait to educate your employees to create positive experiences for your customers.
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