Stop utilizing the wrong words when servicing your customers
“I’m currently servicing another customer and will be with you shortly.”
If you grew up on a farm with livestock operations, you probably understand my discomfort. If not, you might be wondering what was wrong with that friendly note.
These days, the words “serving” and “servicing” are frequently interchanged. People assume they mean the same thing and believe longer words are inherently more impressive, so why not use “servicing” when describing how they take care of customers?
Well, because even though the words look and sound similar, they have surprisingly different meanings. And when you choose the wrong one, it can make what you’ve written — whether that’s a website or a “back soon” sign at the reception desk — send a somewhat embarrassing message.
Some businesspeople don’t like to use the word “serve.” I think part of the reason is that it makes them feel as though they’re in a servile position — “servile” describing the manner in which a servant or a slave responds to a master’s commands. Nobody wants to be seen as beneath someone else. But serving others and tending to their needs is an honorable task. An insurance agent serves homeowners. A doctor serves patients. A firefighter serves the community.
“Service” when used as a verb most often refers to performing repairs or maintenance on some sort of machine or other inanimate object. Your dealer’s technician services your car. The IT department services that printer that keeps jamming. I called the plumber to service the clogged drain.
Servicing critters and people
When the word “service” is used in context with living, breathing things, it takes on an entirely different meaning. To put it delicately, it involves one being performing sexual activity with another. When a cattle farmer wants to increase the size of the herd, they may hire a bull to service their cows. If you want to breed your female black lab, you’ll find a male black lab to service her.
Now apply that meaning to the sign on the reception desk. Your initial reaction may have been that the receptionist was busy doing something else for someone, but mine was that the two of them were essentially getting busy in the next room. Yes, when it comes to people, “servicing” means providing sexual favors.
That page on your website describing how your company serviced 10,000 customers last year or that email you sent to a satisfied customer thanking them for the opportunity to service them? Can you see why you might want to reword them?
Aren’t bigger words better?
The problem isn’t limited to “servicing.” There’s a widespread misconception that it’s always better to use longer, more complicated words. It’s a disorder most people catch in their college days, when they’re desperate to look more intelligent than they really are. Your PoliSci prof may have earned two doctorates but won’t notice your comparative ignorance if you fill your paper with four-syllable words, will they?
Another shining example is “utilize.” Nine times out of ten, when someone includes “utilize” in a blog or on a website, the word they really should have used is … well, “use.” In fact, “utilize” is misused so often that it’s becoming a synonym for “use” even though the two words have different meanings. “Utilize” is at its most correct when it describes something serving the customary function of something else. You can use a hammer to pound nails … but you might need to utilize a screwdriver to do the same thing if a hammer isn’t handy.
Want a more impressive word?
The desire to choose fancier verbiage can also be seen with the familiar word “want.” It’s so common. So simple. And sometimes, we view “want” in a negative context, because people who want a lot often don’t have what we think they should. So as we write that blog post or that sales email, we tell the reader we “desire their business” or “endeavor to service” them. Even those words may not be pompous enough, so we’ll sneak in variants: “our team is desirous of the chance to fulfill your needs.” Sounds like something from one of those Bronte novels we were forced to read in high school.
Once in my ad agency past, an account executive wandered into the writer’s area seeking feedback about a prospect letter he’d proudly penned. The letter included the phrase “I cherish the opportunity to work with you.” When he spoke that line, there was a pause … and then every writer in earshot began a rendition of The Association’s 60s hit single, “Cherish.” Each time he tried to defend his choice of words, everyone around broke into song again. Words like “cherish” and “desire” don’t belong in industrial procurement discussions.
It’s okay to “want.” It’s okay to choose simple and familiar words. When they’re simple, people are less likely to misunderstand them. And when they’re familiar, they’re reassuring. So leave those college games behind and start focusing on communicating instead of trying to impress. You’ll end up impressing more people that way.
Scott Flood established Scott Flood Writing in 1995 after 13 years with advertising agencies in Chicago and Indianapolis. The Chicago native is a frequent author on copywriting and marketing topics for business publications, has authored two books of local interest, Books for All the People: the First Century of the Plainfield-Guilford Township Public Library and A Guide to the Enabling Garden, and is also the author of 100 Years: The Story of the Western States Machine Company.
Scott has been a frequent contributor to the Digital Toolbox. Check out his other article and interview on More than a Few Words.
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