Breaking the ‘negative language habit’ in the call centre

'Bear with me ...' 'Okay I will ... Wait, what? There's a bear with you?'
‘Bear with me …’
‘Okay I will … Wait, what? There’s a bear with you?’

Breaking the ‘negative language habit’ in the call centre – how to Be Positive Always in 3 simple steps

My wide-eyed baby daughter is about to chomp down toothlessly on her tiny shoe, so I start to say, No honey you can’t eat your shoe!

The first words we learn as infants are protective:  don’t , can’t, shouldn’t, stop that, put that down. And so it begins. We acquire language littered with negative words and phrases which can, in turn, lead others to perceive us as negative.

Walk through a call centre and you might hear ‘Unfortunately I can’t send that to you until tomorrow’ (which, put into positive is ‘I will definitely send that to you tomorrow’), or ‘The only one we have is…’  (‘We do have one…’) , or ‘I’m afraid we close at 6 o’clock’ (‘We close at 6 o’clock’).

Why does positive language matter so much in a contact centre?

Language shapes how customers perceive us, our products and services. My husband and I were amused when during a recent trip, we asked our hotel receptionist if we could get a travel cot for our baby and she replied: ‘I’m afraid we don’t have cots in the rooms. The only thing I can do is bring one out here for you, but you’ll have to carry it to your room’. Well, that’s pretty much what we expected, yet she somehow managed to make it seem so negative and unhelpful!

On the phone, the power of language is amplified. Consider the impression one might have of an electronics brand, when its sales agent says ‘my computer is really slow today’.  Or a courier company whose rep states that your ‘parcel should hopefully arrive by 5pm’.

One person who uses language to influence (read: ‘manipulate’), is British illusionist Derren Brown. In one trick, he uses language to subliminally guide actor Simon Pegg towards choosing a Christmas gift that is entirely different to what he wanted before their conversation. You can watch the video here.

British Meteorological Office must also know the power of language, since we’re often told to expect ‘a balmy 15c / 59f with a 20% chance of sunshine’(!)

So how do we encourage contact centre agents to pitch the glass as half full?

  • Step 1, we need to get that light bulb to switch on – we need the agents’ understanding, buy-in and vision of W.I. FM – What’s In it For Me. Answer is, increased sales and recognition that goes with it, better conflict-resolution skills and reduced customer escalations (they might not even get angry in the first place) .

But, like learning a foreign language in a classroom, training and understanding isn’t enough.

  • Step 2 is to help agents to identify which negative words and phrases they use. ‘I avoid the word obviously it’s a useless filler and sounds patronising’, one agent told me during a training session. After listening to 2 of her calls in a coaching session later though, she found that she used it 6 times! Recognition and insight into own behaviour is more than half the battle. The only way to get that is by agents frequently hearing their own calls. Not being told, but actually going through that cringeworthy feeling of listening to one’s  own call recordings. No one enjoys it at first. But it isn’t a Pop Idol audition, we’re only concerned with the words here. A good mystery shopping program or QA process will help identify relevant calls for such feedback and coaching.
  • Step 3 is how to get to Carnegie Hall… Some words or phrases we can drop – they don’t need replacements, for example, ‘basically’. Some we rephrase. Cue cards on monitors, colleagues waving at us when we say a certain word, and the old call centre favourite: hair-band worn on own wrist and flicked each time we hear ourselves saying it (go easy on that one though, I’m not recommending self-punishment).

Changing language habits takes about 6 weeks, but the rewards are measurable, just read your call centre stats!

PS. There are 2 potential side tracks:


  1. Some agents report feeling like they have to watch what they say now. Self-awareness is a good thing it but shouldn’t feel stifling. If that happens, check the training, make sure there is buy-in and no pressure tactics. It’s about self-development as well as job skills.
  1. Some might say they’re just being honest when they present information in a negative way. Honest is good. But what we don’t want to do is present great products and services as second rate.


Please avoid encouraging the agents to run riot and awkwardly overuse positive words just to get points in their call quality monitoring programme. For example, ’Can I take your name Ms Customer?’  ‘It’s Gina.’  ‘Fantastic!’

It can be a little annoying.

by:  Milena Maric, Research Team Trainer and Performance Manager at BPA Quality UK

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