Connection and power: how words define your relationship with customers

“Hey buddy,”
“Dear Mr King,”
“Most esteemed customer,”
“Hi Clara!”

Which of these greetings do you love best? Is there one you don’t like at all?

That’s probably because the relationship expressed in that greeting isn’t one you’re comfortable with.

The two axes of customer relationships

We use language to define our relationships with each other in two ways:

  1. How close or distant do I perceive us to be?
  2. How equal or hierarchical is our relationship?

Perpendicular axes with the following labels: top — hierarchy, bottom — equality; left — closeness, right — distance
Deborah Tannen’s relationship grid — taken from “Abduction, Dialogicality and Prior Text: The Taking on of Voices in Conversational Discourse.” Plenary address at the 84th Annual Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, Baltimore, MD, January 8, 2009.

Deborah Tannen, one of our favourite linguists, came up with this grid. It’s a useful tool to define your relationship with your customers: How close is your brand to your customers? Are you looking for respectful distance or constant interaction? And is your motto more “we’re all in this together” or “we’re in charge”?

perpendicular axes labelled as follows: top — hierarchy; bottom — equality; left — closeness, right — distance. "parent/child" is written in the top left corner, indicating that the relationship is characterised by closeness and hierarchy (according to most Western cultures)
Parents are in charge — they have a close but hierarchical relationship with their children. (source as above)

perpendicular axes labelled as follows: top — hierarchy; bottom — equality; left — closeness, right — distance. "best friends" is written in the bottom left corner, indicating that the relationship is characterised by closeness and equality (according to most Western cultures)
Best friends are “in this together”: close and equal. (source as above)

Over to you

Once you’ve located your brand on these axes, look at the words you use when you talk to customers. Place them on the grid too.

Do they support the relationship you want?

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