If you want to understand real communication, you must first study real communication. And if you want to understand customer experience (CX), you need to look at real CX as it happens in the wild.

“What does it actually mean to build rapport?” asks Liz Stokoe. As a professor of Social Interaction, Stokoe studies the science of conversation, demonstrating how every word in every line spoken by either person in a conversation has an impact on the outcome.

She is dissecting the idea of rapport during her EmpowerCX Europe keynote because for years, cold callers have been told that’s what they need to build with the person on the other end of the line in order to increase their chances of selling. 

“But it’s such a tenuous nebulous concept,” Stokoe continues. “And what does it mean to follow the guidance for helping you build a rapport?”

Too tied to a script

Often those making outbound calls to secure new business and those receiving calls to help solve customer issues can be too tied to a script or a preordained way of doing things to hear how a conversation is developing and take the necessary steps to turn it in their direction.

Or, as Stokoe puts it: “What we know about talk and communication, might not appear in the communication guidance or scripts or evaluation of that communication.”

We think building a rapport with a potential customer is the right way to go, but when you ignore that idea and get straight down to business, as Stokoe’s own research into hundreds of individual conversations shows, cold callers close more often.

In the study in question the company struggling to win new clients was too obligated to a script and it meant employees weren’t empowered or focused on the cues and triggers needed to guide the conversation.

“If you want to understand talk, communication, conversation, we need to research real talk. Not simulated talk, not experimentally produced talk. Real talk as it happens in the wild,” warns Stokoe. “And the same goes for CX. If we want to understand CX, we have to look at real CX. As it happens, in the wild.”

Real talk is not random

And when one does look at interactions in forensic detail the evidence shows that real talk isn’t completely random, it is systemic. It has patterns and markers. To the point where one choice of word over another can have a huge impact on a conversation.

“We tend to think people behave in the way they do because of psychological factors we’ve known about for years,” says Stokoe. “But put all of those to one side for a moment and think about do we ever bother to look at words, turn by turn, by turn, having an impact. We don’t believe that words can shape an outcome but they do.”

Do you want to talk?

To highlight how a single word can completely change the outcome of a conversation, Stokoe plays two examples of interactions between a police negotiator and a person in crisis. In the first example, the negotiator asks if the person wants to talk, and that person says “no” and hangs up. In the second the negotiator says “speak” instead and the conversation continues. The person in crisis stays on the line.

“If it was obvious asking people to talk doesn’t work, then we wouldn’t do it,” says Stokoe.

For this reason we should be just as cautious in CX settings when we use the term “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“You really have to be confident in using that kind of line,” Stokoe warns. “Does the person feel helped? If you ask the question it requires you to think ‘was I helpful?’”

But beyond considering how much someone has helped someone else, Stokoe wants people in the industry to continue thinking about language, words and conversations in terms of real talk between real people. Because this understanding and the data we draw from it is what’s going to shape conversational business – chatbots, voicebots and AI.

“Humans cannot simulate being other humans,” says Stokoe. In other words “We need to research real talk. Not simulated talk, not experimentally produced talk.”

Watch Stokoe’s full keynote here.


Sitel Group