Brands have conversations with customers every single day, but many are missing out on critical information that is hidden within these conversations. A customer may say, “I’m looking forward to us coming to a resolution.” A short time later, that same customer might add, “I would like you to do something about this.” Today, various organizations are using speech analytics to understand customer sentiment in conversations just like these. However, what many brands don’t realize is that there are critical elements within a customer conversation that can help companies predict how a customer will behave. Every single word in a conversation with a customer holds meaning, but some words mean more than others and those are the words that companies must analyze to better understand sentiment and predict customer behavior. Speech analytics can help brands do both, but to uncover a customer’s true sentiment, a company must understand contextual versus functional words.
Contextual, or content, words are defined by conscious intention. They are the nouns, verbs, adjectives, and (sometimes) adverbs that people use when formulating a sentence. Contextual words usually refer to things like the products customers want, or they are descriptions of moods, customer sentiment, or tendencies. Functional words serve to establish relationships with the words around them and are used to make a sentence grammatically correct, but they are typically regarded as having little to no meaning of their own. Even if the functional words are removed, a listener or reader can generally understand the basic meaning behind the now-fragmented sentence, which is why they are often referred to as “throwaway words.” Allegedly, the only purpose of a functional word is to make a sentence flow. However, that is absolutely not the case. According to The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us by James W. Pennebaker, pronouns and prepositions often reveal the most about underlying sentiment. If brands want to know what their customers are really thinking, functional words will give them more insight into actual customer sentiment than contextual words.
When customers are speaking with a brand, they are actively choosing which nouns, verbs, and adjectives to use in a sentence, but the same isn’t true for the functional words. The functional words are a byproduct of subconscious thoughts — ones that customers don’t even realize they’re having — and it’s the subconscious that provides brands with a clear view of what customers are actually thinking. For example, a customer may start the conversation using the word “we,” which signals inclusion. As the dialogue progresses, “we” may change to “you,” which indicates that the customer is distancing him/herself from the brand. That is a huge red flag, and may indicate that a customer is thinking about taking his/her business elsewhere. Understanding the use of these functional words will allow brands to course correct, which can potentially mend the relationship before it becomes a customer churn statistic.