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The Name Game

Use Names to Facilitate Effective Communication and Not Obscure It

In “The Perfect Answer,” we talked about using your name when answering phone calls. This makes a personal connection with the caller and facilitates productive communication to result in positive outcomes.

Besides phone calls, names are equally important for online and in-person communication. Here are some further thoughts on names.

The Alias

A friend once worked for a collection agency. All day he placed calls to people who owed money to his clients. Since he was attempting to contact people who didn’t want to be found, he often met with opposition and even threats. Because of this, he never used his actual name and adopted an alias for his work. 

This was a company policy to protect employees from reprisals by those they pursued. Since he presented himself as a named person, he met with more success than he would’ve had he been a nameless voice from the dreaded collection agency.

As a side effect, assuming a new name enabled him to adopt a different persona at work. Contrary to his mellow personality, his collection agency character allowed him to become a determined sleuth unaffected by avoidance tactics and threats of retaliation.

In this case, using an alias was both safe and effective.

The Switch 

While attending a banquet, it surprised me to see a friend working there as a server. Chloe shared that she took this occasional part-time work to earn extra money. After chatting a while, I glanced at her name tag. It said “Jennifer.”

She smiled. “They make us wear name tags, but they never said we had to wear our own. So, we all switch.” Her eyes twinkled with excitement. “Sometimes I swap with Jeremy.”

Though Chloe could pass as Jennifer, she certainly didn’t look like a Jeremy.

This was a fun way to add some variety to a fast-paced and demanding job. Yet her admission gave me pause. I wondered what else she and her coworkers were doing, contrary to the expectation of management. The staff’s reaction to their employer’s name policy hinted to workplace problems. I wondered if these issues affected their patrons in a negative way. 

If your staff engages in passive-aggressive behavior, look for the underlying cause and then fix it.

The Alternate

I once had an employee with an unusual name: Johnene. When answering the phone, she always gave her name as trained. Too often, however, callers asked her to repeat it. Growing tired of this, she tried a shortened version, Johnnie. Callers now understood her name, but many repeated it with a question in their voice to confirm they heard right. She then tried John, but that made things worse. Next, she even used Joan for a bit, but it didn’t feel right and confused her coworkers. She reverted to Johnene.

Sometimes names can impede communication, delaying the resolution that callers seek. It may facilitate customer service to use an alternate, more common name. But not always. 

Multiple times I’ve called companies and had a heavily accented representative—who I suspected was halfway around the world—tell me his name was Jeff or Mike. I seriously doubted that. I realize he did this because I was unlikely to understand his actual name or be able to repeat it. Yet with such an obvious mismatch between his accent and stated name, I felt duped, distracting me from accomplishing my goal.

A better solution than to adopt a common American-sounding name might be to use a nickname or the first syllable or two of his actual name. These options would better bridge the culture implied by his accent and the goal to facilitate quick caller resolution. 

The Bot

More companies are using bots for customer service. Guided by artificial intelligence, bots are computer programs that communicate with customers in a way that mimics human interaction. The goal is for people to never know they’re chatting with a computer program and not an actual person.

Though I have no way of knowing how many times a bot has fooled me into thinking “Larry” was real, I know that sometimes the person I assumed I was chatting with turned out to be fake. The tipoff comes as our conversation progresses and the bot becomes less helpful. Then the bot types, “Let me get someone who can help you with that.”

I recently reached out to a tech company for help. I knew the initial interaction would be computerized, but they pleased me when the chat window listed the agent’s name as “Bot.” This left no doubt that I was interacting with a computer program and they weren’t trying to deceive me. Bot understood what I needed and routed me to the right person. We’ll call this a customer service win.

Does your company use bots to trick people or help them?

Customer Service Success Tip

Consider how your employees—and apps—use names when interacting with customers. Remember that the goal is effective service. Make sure your policy on using names keeps this in mind.

Read more in Peter’s new book, Sticky Customer Service, to uncover helpful customer service tips, encouraging you to do better and celebrating what you do best.