Words Are Powerful - Choose Wisely

Words Are Powerful - Choose Wisely

Published by Michelle Haupt on

By Amy Demas

Words are Powerful - Choose Wisely

Have you ever thought you were clear with your intended message, but someone took what you said the wrong way? This can happen when our word choice doesn’t hit the mark.

Words are fascinating; language is extraordinary, and word choice is vital. Since words are so powerful, let’s start with the definitions of two words – denotation and connotation.

Denotation is the literal meaning of a word – the dictionary definition. Connotation includes the emotions associated with the word and is subjective to an individual’s personal, social, or cultural experiences.

Oh boy! No wonder language and getting ideas across can be tricky. Although the literal meaning of words is fairly stable, communicating involves more than meaning – it’s about the emotions and feelings our words conjure up. And then think of how words and phrases totally change over time. They carry completely different meanings across generations. Totally gnarly! (For those who didn’t grow up in the 80s, I mean “awesome”!)

Today I want to explore three examples of a word exchange to ensure we provide the best meaning and connotation to our patients and families. As I listen to more than 15,000 recorded calls each year, I get to observe where repeated confusion or offense takes place.

Complimentary Consultation vs No-Cost Exam

We have referred to the new patient exam as a “complimentary consultation” for decades. But here is the challenge we have on the phone. Callers are not only multi-tasking, but their vernacular (lingo or vocabulary) is decreasing over time and “complimentary” is regularly misunderstood. And if English is not their primary language…oh boy…you will lose them.

I can provide example after example when we explain how the first visit is complimentary and the caller asks, “So how much will the first visit be?” And our team says, “It’s complimentary.” [Silent pause] And the caller asks again, “So do I need to pay for the first visit?” And we stubbornly hold to the response of, “No, it’s complimentary.”

I hear that exchange over and over. “Complimentary” sounds too close to “compliment”. Feel free to use “complimentary” on written items but exchange it to “no-cost” on the phone. Keeping connotation in mind we do not want to go down as far as to say it is “free” – keep it elevated and clear by using, “no-cost”.

In the example above, once a reply of “complimentary” is used multiple times and our team member changes to “no-cost”, I hear the new patient reply with an understanding, “Ohhh…great.”

Decision-Maker vs All Involved

Ok – many of us hopped on the bandwagon to ask if there were any other “decision-makers” that would be attending the new patient exam. We did this as we changed from asking if a husband or wife was also going to attend. We were trying to avoid putting our foot in our mouth by assuming the family structure. I was one of them.

But here is the thing; it can come across as offensive to some. This lesson hit home for me as I listened to enough callers bristle at the term. This has happened with male and female callers.

The connotation of asking if there are other decision-makers IMPLIES that someone may not be capable of deciding on their own. That was not our intent but that is how it tends to be heard.

So what do we do with this?

We change the term to “all involved” or “anyone involved”. We can invite anyone like this: “As you will have one-on-one time with Dr. Smile, it is a great time for anyone involved to get their questions answered. Do you think anyone else would be joining you for this exam?”

This is inclusive to whatever family or support structure they have.

Sorry vs. Apologize

Let’s face it. No one is perfect. We strive for excellence but that does not mean the absence of “oops”. Sometimes that “oops” is by us and sometimes it is in the lives of our patients.

That leads to scenarios where our patients may vent frustrations. And the first response we utter after someone has vented is critical.

I know some customer service experts prefer “sorry” to “apologize”, but we must consider our target audience. More often than not, our caller is a parent…and most likely a mom.

Think about that mom. She has kids. Those kids bicker. And moms tell those kids to say they are sorry…and those “angels” say they are sorry, but it is dripping with sarcasm and eye rolls.

For many a parent, and especially moms, “sorry” can be a trigger word and cause a reaction of, “OH NO YOU DIDN’T!!!” Am I right?

So unless you can provide a VERY authentic and sincere, “I’m so sorry this has been frustrating…” I recommend elevating the response to an apology. “I apologize this has been frustrating.” (As a side note, a sincere, “I understand,” is also effective.)

Words matter. Great communication means adapting to your audience. And our audience is not the same as generations or decades ago. Be nimble. Be understood.

Amy Demas MBA, DTM, DFSS is the President of Communicate Excellence and provides communication training and coaching. She is an award-winning speech evaluator through Toastmasters. Amy has authored the book, Communicate Excellence, to be a resource and guide for front-office team members. She is an international speaker and coach, and believes in "paying it forward" by donating over 10% of ALL sales to organizations that help others. Check out her website at www.communicateexcellence.com for free resources, or email at amy@communicateexcellence.com.