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bized-research-service00sr10.jpg Credit: iStock Cutline: A Wilfrid Laurier University study suggests that employees who correctly use personal pronouns when talking to customers can earn big gains for their company.

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The Globe’s bimonthly report on research from business schools.

It may not sound like a big deal, but a new study from Wilfrid Laurier University suggests that employees who correctly use personal pronouns when talking to customers can earn big gains for their company.

It’s the difference between saying “I can help you” versus “we can help you” in a phone call or e-mail, says Grant Packard, lead researcher and assistant professor in marketing at the university’s Lazaridis School of Business and Economics.

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The “I” pronoun makes people feel more personally connected to an employee — and, by extension, to the company as a whole.

So powerful is that positive feeling, the field data study found that if company agents shifted their “we” use to “I," that company could expect a 7-per-cent increase in sales for that customer within the 90 days after the service interaction.

Pronoun use matters “because customers often wonder whether the service rep is working to serve them or to serve the company,” says Dr. Packard in an e-mail.

“Personal pronouns are like the social currency of language,” he adds. “We theorized that they should signal who is the focus, and who is engaged (or not) in a social interaction.”

Dr. Packard, an expert in language, marketing and consumer behaviour, says he was prompted to initiate the study after noticing in his own experiences that employees – from servers to chief executive officers – often refer to themselves in the plural, even when that doesn’t seem natural.

The study’s key conclusion runs contrary to accepted customer-service conventions which tend to emphasize the use of “we” by employees in an attempt to show they are part of an team or organization.

Dr. Packard acknowledges that it is not always possible to naturally accomodate a pronoun change. The study found between 10 and 15 per cent of “we” uses analyzed can’t be changed to “I” or a first-person pronoun. (For instance, “Our return policy is …” couldn’t be swapped for “My return policy is …")

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That doesn’t mean companies shouldn’t try.

Dr. Packard recommends that companies encourage employees to take personal accountability and control over customer outcomes. Employees should worry a little more about helping the customer and a little less about representing the company, he says.

“In doing so, the company might be more likely to see a natural shift in their employee’s pronoun use,” he says.

Mr. Packard’s work is published in this month’s Journal of Marketing Research

Story ideas related to business school research in Canada can be sent to darahkristine@gmail.com

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