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Good service language makes for happier holidays

(MoneyWatch) It's that time of year, and the abuse has begun. Companies abusing customers, customers abusing companies, customers abusing other customers, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria. This is the season when customer service is put to the ultimate test. And at a time when people can buy almost anything, anywhere, at any price, how your company fares in that test can be the main determinant of your holiday happiness and success as a business owner.

Clearly there are many elements to the customer experience. But often, making people happy to hand you their money can be as simple as the way you speak to them. Not just being nice (though that's critical too), but the very specific things you say.

In other words, your language as a business is the way you "wrap" your service, and it shows your level of care in the same way that wrapping paper reflects the thought that went into a gift. Great service is swathed in perfectly creased, glossy paper with a shiny bow; mediocre or lousy service is wrapped in old, mushed-up newspaper held together by masking tape with hair on it.

Think about common service interactions and the way you and your staff handle them, and make sure the language you use is specifically geared to engender satisfaction and happiness, not just to answer a question or make a statement:

Say this: "Hi/welcome/how are you?"
Not this: [nothing]

Say this: "Let me help you with that" or "How can I help you?"
Not this: "You need help?"

Say this: "Can you bear with me for just a moment?"
Not this: "We're just swamped right now, you'll have to give me a minute."

Say this: "Let me see if I can get that OK'd for you."
Not this: "Sorry, that's our policy."

Say this: "What's best/easiest for you?"
Not this: "That's the best we can do."

Say this: "I won't keep you waiting long" or "I'll have this done as fast as I can."
Not this: "Hold on a second for me, OK?"

Say this: "I'm so sorry about that."
Not this: [nothing]

Say this: "I'd be happy to/absolutely/our pleasure"
Not this: "I can't."

Say this: "Thank you."

It may seem like semantics, or even a ridiculous level of nuance to some, but dismiss these subtleties at your peril. The customer ear is a highly evolved and sensitive organ, ready to make the rest of the body jump for joy, or pounce in anger, depending on what it hears... or thinks it hears.

Although many of these examples clearly apply best to retail, especially during the frantic -- and financially critical -- holiday season, the lessons extend to many other businesses and means of communication. Whether you sell flowers or forklifts, whether you're behind a register or across the country behind a screen, the idea is the same: Use precise, intentional, empathic language that is most likely to elicit the most positive response.

Obviously this isn't something you should just take out for the holidays, like Christmas lights. "Using your words," as parents so often admonish their children these days, must be a year-round practice if you really want to be a customer service superstar.

But this is a time of year that can be make-or-break for many companies, and when customers are at their most sensitive and frazzled. So if you're not already actively managing your customer service language, now's a really good time to start -- more than ever, business success depends on making people happy -- and a careless (or care-less) turn of a phrase can quickly turn a smile upside down.

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