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Say “I” not “We” when speaking to customers

Use ‘I’ (“I’m happy to help”) instead of ‘We’ when interacting with customers to increase satisfaction and sales (19% and 7% in the study). Using 'You' in interactions has no benefit.

Topics: Messaging & Copy | Customer Experience | Retail Store
For: B2C, B2B
Research date: August 2018
Universities: Lazaridis School of Business and Economics, Wilfrid Laurier University; Alberta School of Business, University of Alberta; and Beedie School of Business, Simon Fraser University.

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📝 Intro

Current ‘best practices’ in customer interactions are based on a 1982 study that says company agents should downplay their “self” and emphasize the “firm”.

This is so prevalent that 92% of customer service managers (in a US panel) would answer a customer email with “We are happy to help answer this question.” rather than “I am happy to help answer this question.”

Do precisely the opposite.

📈 Recommendation

When interacting with customers use the pronoun “I” (e.g. I have exactly what you’re looking for) instead of “We” (e.g. We have exactly what you’re looking for).

🎓 Findings

  • Using “I” (the agent) rather than “We” (the company) when speaking with customers increases customer satisfaction and sales. It works across interaction types (e.g. inquiries, complaints) and situations (e.g. email, in-person).

  • For example:

    • An analysis of 1,277 customer service email interactions and sales data of a large online retailer found that 10% more use of “I” increases sales 0.8%. Since 90% of the cases in which “We” was used could be changed to “I”, that’s a total increase of 7%

    • Using real emails from 6 firms, in an experiment people were 19% more satisfied and had 15% higher purchase intention when agents used “I” rather than “We”

  • Emphasizing “You” (“Happy to answer your question”) when speaking to customers has no positive effect (“Happy to answer the question”).

Using “I” increases both satisfaction and purchase intentions - Click to zoom in

🧠 Why it works

  • “I” increases our perception that the agent is emotionally involved in the interaction and empathizes with us. This positive feeling spills over to the firm.

  • Using “We” makes the speaker seem distant. They feel more part of the firm than involved in our situation.

  • Using “You” during an interaction doesn’t add any benefit because it’s already clear that the agent is referring to us if they’re speaking to us.

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  • The research was conducted in English. It’s unclear if and how the effects would differ for other languages.

  • Using “We” when referring to the agent and customer (“We”: agent + customer; e.g. We can work this out together) rather than the firm (exclusive “We”: agent + firm) is probably beneficial.

  • The effect may extend to company spokespersons or endorsers (e.g. in ads), but this was not tested.

  • Note that this research refers to interactions with customers. For example, a customer reading would be different.

🏢 Companies using this

  • In a random selection of email responses from 40 top online retailers, 100% used at least one “We”, 97.5% used at least one “You”, and an “I” only appeared in 45% of cases.

  • Sales and customer managers overwhelmingly train and encourage agents to use “We” and “You”

⚡ Steps to implement

  • Update your training guidelines.

  • Encourage agents to see themselves as personally involved in the customer’s needs, rather than impersonal representatives of your company.

🔍 Study type

Lab and online experiments and market observation (of 1,277 email interactions of a large online retailer, linked to purchase data). Canada and United States

📖 Research

Packard, G., Moore, S. G., & McFerran, B. (I'm) happy to help (you): The impact of personal pronoun use in customer–firm interactions. Journal of Marketing Research (August 2018).

🏫 Affiliations

Lazaridis School of Business and Economics, Wilfrid Laurier University; Alberta School of Business, University of Alberta; and Beedie School of Business, Simon Fraser University. Canada and United States.

Remember: This research could be disproven in the future (although this is rare). It also may not be generalizable to your situation. If it’s a risky change, always test it on a small scale before rolling it out widely.

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