How Can “I” Help “You”? The Impact of Personal Pronoun Use in Customer-Firm Agent Interactions

Grant Packard, Sarah G. Moore, and Brent McFerran, 2014, 14-110

Should firm agents “put the customer first” when responding to customer questions or complaints? Grant Packard, Sarah Moore, and Brent McFerran address this question from a linguistic perspective, providing a novel examination of how personal pronoun use in customer-firm interactions influences customer attitudes and behavior.

By using personal pronouns, a firm (or firm agent) can linguistically focus a conversation on the customer (“Thank you for contacting Apple”), the firm (“We are happy to help”), or the firm agent herself (“I am happy to help”).  The authors focus on the impact of firm agents’ linguistic self-references—their use of “I” pronouns—when responding to customers, as compared to the use of “you” or “we” pronouns. In five studies, they answer three questions: What do firm agents and customers believe is optimal in terms of personal pronoun use? What pronouns do firm agents actually use? What pronouns should firm agents use?

Customer-orientation theory suggests that firm agents should focus on “you” (the customer) in customer interactions. In a pilot study, the authors demonstrate that managers and consumers expect firm agents to be more linguistically focused on the customer (“you”) than the firm agent. Their first study, which used a sample of real firm responses to customer inquiries and complaints, showed that firm agents do place heavier emphasis on “you” pronouns in comparison with natural language.

However, additional studies show that increased self-references to “me” and “I” on the part of the firm agent are more beneficial for customer attitudes and purchase behavior. Three experiments reveal the positive consequences of increased agent self-references on customer attitudes and intentions, and demonstrate that this effect arises through enhanced perceptions of firm agent empathy and agency—the extent to which the firm agent feels and acts on behalf of the customer. A final study leverages field data to offer initial evidence of a positive link between increased self-reference pronoun use by firm agents and actual customer purchases.

These results shed light on how firms might leverage the linguistic content of customer-firm communications (e.g., email, blogs, social networks, etc.) to enhance customer relationships. Simply put, and in contrast to prevailing managerial philosophies, firms should train customer-facing employees to emphasize more self-references in their language (“I” pronouns) when responding to customers.

Grant Packard is Assistant Professor of Marketing, Laurier School of Business and Economics, Wilfrid Laurier University. Sarah G. Moore is Assistant Professor of Marketing, Alberta School of Business, University of Alberta. Brent McFerran is Assistant Professor of Marketing, Beedie School of Business, Simon Fraser University.

The authors thank Jim Bettman for his pronoun wizardry and an anonymous firm for providing the field data used in study 5.


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