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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.

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Business Articles

Under the Influence: Making a Difference for Those Around Us

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

My daughter’s a teacher. In her first year out of college, she taught first grade, influencing the next generation. I don’t recall too much about my own first grade teacher. I do know I really liked her. Many times, my parents said Mrs. Frank gave me a great start in school, a strong foundation on which future teachers could build.

Another stellar educator who was highly influential was Miss Robinson, my fourth grade teacher. Our class was a challenge to her – a good challenge. Many of us had been in a “split” room the year before, with half third graders and half fourth graders. Once our third grade assignments were complete, we could do fourth grade work. The result was that Miss Robinson inherited a batch of students who had already mastered much of the fourth grade curriculum. She worked hard to provide us with additional lessons to keep us challenged, without similarly handicapping our fifth grade teacher.

We moved that summer, and I started a new school. I quickly realized three things. I was far ahead in math, hopelessly behind in grammar, and placed in the wrong class by the school secretary. However, teachers often give more attention to students on the fringes, both those with great promise and those who struggle. My understanding of things unknown by my peers, catapulted me to a position of prominence. As a result, my teacher gave me extra attention, while my classmates viewed me with academic awe. Although I didn’t learn much that year, I underwent a metamorphous of self-perception. Put succinctly, I began fifth grade as an above average student who felt average and ended the year as an above average student convinced he was exceptional. That single change in attitude altered the trajectory of my education – and my life. Yes, Mrs. Wedel influenced me immensely.

In seventh grade, I had Mr. Snow for English. He loved to teach and he loved seventh graders. He invested extra effort in me during lunch and after school, getting me caught up on my grammar. Our class read and studied, Dickens’ classic story, A Christmas Carol. Mr. Snow helped us dig into this timeless tale and mine its many truths. The conclusion was inescapable for me and equally profound. Like Dickens’ Scrooge, we have a choice on how we live our life; it can be for selfish purposes or it can be for the joy of living and the benefit of others. I chose the latter.

That year I also had Mr. Binder for science. He was a strict educator with high expectations – and I feared him – at least in class. However, he also faithfully served as my track coach for five years, where he functioned in a much different role and with significant influence on me. It was on the track where I learned many of life’s important issues and where I experienced my happiest moments as a teen. Although I wasn’t an athlete, athletic opportunities – via a highly effective coach – helped to shape me more than anything learned in the classroom.

In high school it was Mr. Grosser who affected me greatly. With a passion for molding young minds, he was part educator and part entertainer. In his class, the unexpected became routine. Sometimes he addressed the course material; at other times, he digressed. Regardless, he pushed us to think. His influence was significant and helped me mature as an individual and prepare for adulthood.

The standout mentor of my college years was Professor Britten. Intellectual and insightful, he communicated profundity with ease. I hung on every word. Nothing he said was wasted; everything had significance. I took his classes, not because of the subject, but because of the instructor.

These are some of the teachers who influenced me; they are the best of the best. Aside from academia, I have had many “teachers” in the business world as well. Although not educators, per se, they guided me to become the person I am today.

If you are a teacher, be encouraged that you are influencing others – even if you don’t know it. You may never be affirmed by those in your class, but you are making a difference, to every student, every year.

If you’re not a teacher, know that you, too, influence others. Whether a business owner, a manager, a supervisor, or a front-line employee, you influence those around you by what you do, the things you say, and how you treat others.

Like Scrooge, we can influence negatively by pursuing a life of selfish greed, or we can influence positively by choosing to make a difference in the lives of others. Although they may seldom thank us for our influence in their lives, we are making a lasting impact.