We shut down the use of profanity in customer service interactions. But, in doing so are we in danger of missing something?

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From time to time I come across research from outside of the service and experience domain that makes me wonder whether or not the findings can be applied to help us better understand how we can improve team performance, service and experience.

One such study published in 2016 in the Journal of Consumer Research by Professor Jordan Etkin at Duke University focused on investigating the impact of wearable technology devices, like Fitbit watches, on their owners. What the study found was that measuring an activity tends to make the amount of activity rise. However, at the same time, it can also drive down the level of engagement and enjoyment associated with that activity.

So, in a previous Forbes article, I explored this idea by asking what that could mean for management practices and whether our current predilection for tracking and measuring employee activity could be having the same effect, i.e. driving higher output but decreasing engagement. Following on from that, I then asked if that could also be undermining our ability to deliver exceptional service.

Recently, I found another piece of research due to be published later this year in The Journal of Psychological and Personality Science . The study, conducted by Gilad Feldman of the Department of Work and Psychology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and an international research team, looked into the relationship between swearing and straightforwardness. What they found was that there is a positive and robust relationship between profanity and honesty.



The problem with applying that finding is that many organizations have policies in place that enable employees to shut down conversations that include the use of swear words in all aspects of organizational life, including interactions with customers, suppliers and colleagues.

Now, I am not condoning the use of profanity, particularly when it is directed at individuals as, I believe, that is wrong and can have a negative impact on someone’s well-being.

But, if we eliminate those cases and consider Feldman’s research, could companies be in danger of shutting themselves off from some authentic and honest feedback from their customers just because it contains some profanity?

This question gets more significant when you consider recent data from CallMiner that shows a recent rise in the use of swear words in customer service interactions.

According to the research, the top reasons for customer anger include:

  1. Long wait times,
  2. Having to repeat themselves to an agent they have been transferred to,
  3. Their inability to get their issue resolved on the first call,
  4. Long automated messages, and
  5. Being transferred to the wrong person.

Given these research findings, I believe organizations have two options:

One, they can hold onto blanket and possibly prissy policies about the use of swear words in service interactions. But, in doing so, they need to be aware that it may put them out of sync with their customers and may shut themselves off from a growing source of both honest and authentic feedback.

Two, they can take a more nuanced approach to the use of profanity in customer interactions as a way of opening themselves up to their customers’ concerns and to really listening to them. Sure, there should be boundaries on what is and what is not acceptable language, when it can be used and who it is directed at, and that is a decision that each organization has to take. But, if they have the courage to explore this issue and do something about it, then they may just learn something new.



Whichever option they choose, what is inarguable is that organizations should work hard to reduce the incidence of the situations that act as a catalyst for these situations to occur.

This post was originally published on Forbes here.

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