Language Can Transform Your Brand From Bates Motel To Ritz-Carlton

Language-Can-Transform-Your-Brand-From-Bates-Motel-To-Ritz-Carlton-Q1Customer experience is all the rage at the moment. The talk is all about touch points and the customer journey, from ad to call center. But companies are missing out if they’re not thinking about the words used on that journey.

I love hotels. Especially luxury hotels. Who doesn’t enjoy a little pampering every once in a while? But I also admire, and enjoy, how luxury hotels talk to me. Because they pay attention to how the right words can improve my stay.

Luxury hotels like the Ritz-Carlton were among the pioneers of customer experience. From the bellhops and wait-staff dressed like butlers to the oh-so-luxurious private bathrooms, every detail was carefully curated to take care of their customers’ needs, make their stay easy, and make it enjoyable. And the lessons they’ve learnt over the years are applicable to all brands, not just hotels.

Hitting The Right Tone

The Ritz-Carlton has been so successful, they’ve spun off an institute to teach some of those strategies to companies outside the hospitality industry. A couple of years back, it published a short article about choosing the right words when talking to guests. Listen to some of the advice:

  • Use a proper greeting
  • Be conversational, but not overly chummy
  • Shun phrases that are hopeless and helpless
  • Never start with a negative

They back it up too. The advice about not starting with negative words? That’s supported by research showing that even just hearing sentences that start with words like ‘no’ can boost stress chemicals in your brain and stop you from thinking clearly. And if you’ve ever dealt with a cranky sales agent, you know exactly how that feels.

What’s important here is that the Ritz-Carlton isn’t just teaching their staff what to say. They’re also teaching people how to say it.

Testing The Limits

To understand what clients are looking for, and the order they want it, you need to look back to the basic customer experience pyramid. It’s got needs at the base, ease-of-use in the middle and enjoyment up top. So if your reservation got messed up and the hotel’s overbooked, your needs aren’t being met. And words alone are unlikely to help.

No amount of nice words will make a room appear out of thin air, for example. But if the desk clerk is choosing their words carefully, it could make the situation less painful for everyone. Which would you prefer to hear in that situation?

“No, sir. The reservation’s not there, and we’ve got no rooms. I’ll see what I can do but…”


“I apologize for the mix-up sir, but I can’t find your reservation. Let me see if I can find you a room at another hotel because we don’t have any rooms available.”

They’re both offering you the same response, but which one do you think is most likely to make your blood pressure skyrocket?

Attention to language also helps on the second rung of the experience pyramid. One of our clients rewrote a user guide because one in five of their customers were calling the help center. The reason? The user guide had been written by techies for techies, not ‘normal people’. And customers weren’t having an easy time. The new user guide explained everything in the language normal people use, not the language experts use to speak to each other. As a result, their help calls dropped to less than 2 percent of sales.

But it’s once a company has got ‘needs’ and ‘ease’ under control that smart language really starts to pay off. I’m the first to admit that luxury hotels can seem ‘samey’. No matter where you go, the rooms are comfortable, the service is great, the pool is glorious and the food’s sumptuous. But language can help you to build a brand, and set you apart from the competition.

Standing Out From The Crowd

Think about the brands with great customer experience. Successful brands are careful to set themselves apart. JetBlue, for example, works hard at this – all the way from their subway ads to how the flight attendant asks if you want peanuts. It works, too. In 2015, JetBlue topped the list of US airlines with the best customer experience.

The most successful brands are also the most consistent. They aren’t cute in ads and curt when customers complain. BMW made a name for itself with outstanding customer service, even when people were complaining about their cars breaking down. They did such a good job of dealing with customers in this tough situation that brand loyalty actually increased.

Some companies can even make clicking on a broken link an opportunity to sweeten the customer experience for example. Look at the 404 error page for the tech site GitHub with its Star Wars-related gag that riffs on a famous line from the 1977 movie about these not being “the droids you’re looking for”. It’s pretty clear they know their users.

And Saving Money

Paying attention to the words you use can also save money, and not just loose change. BT saved about $620,000 when they rewrote a call center script. They shortened it by 13 seconds and made it easier to understand by cutting out the legalese.

Think about that pyramid again. Using the right language helped make the experience easier, and more enjoyable. Given the millions of dollars spent on customer experience on websites and call centers every year, thinking about how your company talks to clients is a pretty cheap investment. And one with plenty of return.

There’s Plenty To Do

Even though the idea of using the best language for the situation has been around for a while, there’s still plenty of room to make a difference. A study* was commissioned earlier this year of how US businesses are communicating with their customers. It shows a big gap between what businesses know they could be doing, and what they really do.

Less than half (43 percent) of companies have writing guidelines. Two in three businesses have never formally reviewed how they use language when talking to customers. And, despite that, a little less than two in three (61 percent) think they’re doing a good job when dealing with customers at call centers.

It’s time to start thinking about the words you use to talk to your clients. If you’re coming off more Bates Motel than Ritz-Carlton, then maybe you need to reconsider both what you say, and how you say it.

* Illuma Research spoke to 200 people working for US businesses on behalf of The Writer. All of them held senior level roles with responsibility for customer experience initiatives.

Originally published on BRANDQUARTERLY