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The Power of Words: Yes, One Word Can Make A Difference

JoanDeMartinGuest post by Joan DeMartin

We all want to make a good impression when we speak and write—whether it’s a condolence note to a dear friend or an email to a work colleague; what we say matters to us, and even more to others. Our written or spoken words represent us, and to a large extent, our abilities.

This is particularly true for our business communications, because what we and our employees say to our customers, for example, is paramount. It can easily be the difference between keeping a customer happy and losing them. And in today’s bumper-to-bumper marketplace, no business can afford to lose even one customer, because one disgruntled customer taking to their social media channels can mean a lot of disgruntled customers.

So how do we, as both business people and customers, impress on business owners, the direct impact their communications can have on their business’s bottom line? I learned from my years as a college writing instructor,that lecturing, or “telling” isn’t the best way to make a point or get an idea across. It took the snores of only a few students to wake me up to the use of real-life examples to engage my students’ intellect and their practical natures.

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It comes down to telling a story -- an anecdote -- to illustrate a point, and I happen to have one I think we can all relate to: listening to a businesses’ voice mail messages. Although there are a few employees who occasionally pick up the phone, hearing: “Hello, how can I help you?” is as rare these days as, dare I say, standard business etiquette. And yes, each employee of a business and their individual voice mail messages represent that company or organization, just as if the CEO herself had recorded each message.

I was in a calling mood one day, in an attempt to get some answers quickly, and first tried to reach a representative of my local bank. After the usual factual information, her message said: “Please leave your name and number, and I will return your call at my earliest convenience.” Huh? Your earliest convenience?  I thought my hearing had failed me and called again. No, this employee of a major bank was going to return a customer’s call when she damn well felt like it, which is what the words “at my convenience” meant to me. Well, to her credit, she did say “earliest convenience.”

I was dumbfounded but undaunted, and placed my second call, this time to an employee of my law school alma mater. Of course, I was routed to her voice mail, and her message said: “Please leave your name and number, and I will return your call at my earliest opportunity.” I don’t know about you, but this made me feel much better. The substitution of one word, “convenience” for “opportunity” changed the entire meaning of the message. I was actually on this employee’s “to do” list—as soon as she was free, she’d call me back! She wasn’t going to do some light shopping, have lunch, chat with her sister-in-law, book her winter Caribbean cruise and then return my call. This employee would return my call as soon as she possibly could, and that, to paraphrase the poet Robert Frost, makes all the difference.

Although I didn’t get my answers quickly that day, I did get a fine anecdote to share with my students. And each time I told that story, the students actually gasped at the brazenness of that first voice mail message.

I’ve been on high alert for voice mail faux pas ever since, and I’m sad to report that this was not an isolated example of, say, the arrogance of the banking industry. This same voice mail message can be found across the business spectrum, from schools to major corporations to non-profits, and it continues to astound me—not that individual employees can be careless in their communications, but that businesses don’t more closely monitor their outgoing messages and insist on simple business etiquette.

Yes, one word can make a difference, and that difference can be to a businesses’ bottom line. 

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