Originally published in the Boulder Daily Camera and the Longmont Daily Times-Call.

Scolding and threats don’t work.

People who’ve known me for a long time know that if you scold me and tell me I’m not allowed to do something I’m immediately challenged to do it. If you threaten me I’m likely to do the opposite. I’m an adult, I don’t need people to tell me what to do. I’m just wired that way – call me a rebel.

I’m not alone. There are a lot of people like me. We don’t respond to scolding words or messages. Words like “must” and “required” are perceived as challenges. What does it mean to you? If your customers or clients are like me, and studies indicate there are a lot of us, you may be offending them without even realizing it.

Case in point – I received a letter from a billing company that said, “Due to the fact that your account is now overdue, you will be turned in to a collection agency if you do not call immediately to pay by credit card.” What?

First of all, I’m never overdue – it’s just another quirk of mine. So when I receive this type of message I’m already angry before I pick up the phone. After some wrangling it became clear that I had not, in fact, received any prior notices. The woman I spoke with was very pleasant and we were able to work through the situation. I apologized for my tone, but noted that a change in their messaging would benefit not only the consumer, but the poor individuals left to answer the phone when their threatening letters have been delivered.

“What if your letter suggested that there may have been an oversight?”, I suggested. “What if instead of noting you would refer me to a collection agency you instead encouraged me to call so we could figure out what is going on? What if instead of demanding immediate payment by credit card you first determined if payment was due?” You get the point. She noted that such language was used to get my attention. Well, they got my attention all right! However, not all attention is good attention.

Messaging is important no matter where it appears. Routine form letters have the ability to make or break you with your customers. These are people that you’ve already sold. They’ve chosen to work with you over the competition. They appreciate your goods and services. So why would you risk offending them?

There is currently a tendency default to “scolding” language. Customers and clients are told how things will go and how they are expected to fall in line. This overlooks the fact that we are dealing with humans. An understanding of human nature is critical to successful messaging.

We know, for a fact, that humans respond better to positive language. If certain behaviors are desired it is more effective to use incentives and rewards for action. Threats and punishment demean not only the customer, but the business as well.

This is true when we speak as well. Negative words and emotions leave your target audiences experiencing negative feelings. This isn’t the way to encourage behavior – it is, in fact, just the opposite.

Watch for highly emotional words as well. Everything isn’t extraordinary, without precedent, unbelievable or critical. Messaging that insinuates emergencies, danger, or penalties should be used with caution. It doesn’t take long for people to shut out all such messaging leaving you and your efforts out in the cold.

Customers and prospects wished to be valued. Don’t make them question their decisions. Keep it positive!

Stacy Cornay is the owner of Communication Concepts Public Relations & Advertising. 
She may be reached at 303-651-6612; scornay@comm-concepts.com; www.comm-concepts.com; Facebook.com/Communication Concepts; Twitter @CommConceptsPR; or Linked In.

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