Do salespeople say customers' names too much? : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money Repeating a customer's name is a classic sales technique used by telemarketers to car salesmen. But can a salesperson use a customer's name too much?

Say my name

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

SALLY HERSHIPS, HOST:

I started noticing this weird thing about 20 years ago when I first became a reporter. I interview a lot of different kinds of people for different stories, like professors and artists and everyday people. But when I talked to politicians or salespeople, especially, you know, from, like, Silicon Valley, they do this one very specific thing - they see my name all the time. And I want to say, no, you are in the wrong conversation. I'm a reporter, and you are making me feel like I just walked into some kind of hardcore sales pitch, like in the movie "The Wolf Of Wall Street."

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LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) Now, right now, John, the stock trades over-the-counter are at 10 cents a share. And by the way, John, our analysts indicate it could go a heck of a lot higher than that. Your profit on a mere $6,000 investment would be upwards of $60,000.

HERSHIPS: But I mean, I'm in. Are you in?

DARIAN WOODS, HOST:

(Laughter) He is making a good sale. I mean, I'm convinced.

HERSHIPS: Well, for a salesperson, saying your customer's name is a time-honored strategy. It's textbook. All these parts of our brain light up when we hear our names. But if you're on the receiving end of that strategy, it can sometimes feel kind of creepy or even off-putting.

Hi, Darian. I'm Sally Herships.

WOODS: Hi, Sally. I'm Darian Woods.

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. We do love the sound of our own names, except when we don't. Today on the show - saying someone's name as a sales strategy.

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HERSHIPS: Using people's names is a strategy strongly endorsed by none other than self-improvement guru Dale Carnegie - famed author of the bestselling "How To Win Friends And Influence People." Yes, he is that guy. His books, also including "How To Stop Worrying And How To Start Living," have sold tens of millions of copies, and he's famous for this one particular quote.

FRANK CESPEDES: Remember that a person's name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.

WOODS: Now, that is not Dale Carnegie. Dale died in the 1950s. That is Frank Cespedes. He's quoting Dale Carnegie. Frank teaches marketing sales strategy at Harvard Business School. And he says that Dale's book is one that people love to make fun of or to kind of patronize. But he says the book itself is actually a lot better than its critiques.

CESPEDES: And a lot of Carnegie is supported by a lot of subsequent behavioral research, including what he said about people's names.

HERSHIPS: Yeah. If you just hop, skip and jump over to the website for the National Institutes of Health, you will learn that there are several regions in the left hemisphere of our brains that get activated when we hear our names, including the middle frontal cortex, the middle and superior temporal cortex. And they're more activated than if we hear someone else's name. Frank says we are wired as a species to respond to our names, which is why using a name can work so well as a sales strategy.

WOODS: But he says that using somebody's name is not always foolproof.

CESPEDES: It's a lot less important than product, price and the value proposition.

HERSHIPS: Right. So if I'm going to buy a car and a salesperson calls me by my name, it might not make that much of a difference.

CESPEDES: Yeah. But I think the way you've got to think about this is that, usually, the name is one small step in a conversation where building trust is important.

HERSHIPS: Frank says there is this one specific category of sales where building trust is vital. You have to establish a relationship. There are all these different categories of goods and sales, like breakfast cereal or batteries or an alarm clock. Those are all consumer goods. And you may not care where you buy your batteries, Darian, but with this other category of purchases, things are different.

WOODS: Economists have a name for this category of purchases. They're called credence goods. And that's from credere, which is Latin for to believe. And credence goods are the kind of purchases where it's kind of difficult to really measure how much it's going to be valuable to you ahead of time. So there are certain things that you kind of just have to take on faith. We're talking about hiring a business consultant, a lawyer or professional services.

CESPEDES: Real estate agent's a good example. As long as I've been involved in business - which, if you could see my balding head, I'm afraid, is a number of decades - I've been hearing that real estate agents are going the way of all flesh. They're going to disappear. Look at Zillow. You know, look at online.

HERSHIPS: But they're still there. Frank says people want to deal with people, especially when they're mulling over a big ticket, significant deal, like signing a new lease or making a will.

CESPEDES: It matters who you're dealing with. I mean, it just does.

HERSHIPS: For a salesperson, using someone's name is one small step towards building a trusting relationship. Using the strategy is considered so important, you can find tips for remembering people's names on the Dale Carnegie YouTube channel.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: For example, when you meet a David, picture that person playing soccer with David Beckham. When you meet a Julia, picture her acting on screen with Julia Roberts.

HERSHIPS: When you meet a Darian, picture him interviewing an economist on THE INDICATOR.

WOODS: I hope that helps. And by the way, compared to 50 years ago, services have become this huge part of the economy. I mean, we've got baristas. We eat out a lot more. There are these customer experiences, like escape rooms or - I don't know - cooking classes for Creole food.

HERSHIPS: Personal shoppers.

WOODS: Yeah. Roughly three-quarters of GDP is in services. That's trillions of dollars. And credence goods are an important part of that.

HERSHIPS: Yeah. And we are also still doing most of our shopping in person. True story - if you look at total U.S. retail sales from the Department of Commerce, only about 13% are done online. The percentage did spike during the pandemic, but it has been dropping every quarter since.

CESPEDES: At the end of the day, buying has always been and, despite what you hear of, you know, all these, I think, very glib new normal predictions we've heard in the last 18 months because of COVID - but buying and selling have always been human transactions as well as economic exchanges. And I don't think that's going away.

WOODS: And there are best practices that go along with using somebody's name as a specific sales strategy. A lot of them are pretty common sense, like ask their permission. Ask how to pronounce their name correctly. Do not mess that up.

HERSHIPS: Don't.

WOODS: There is a reason why frustrated Starbucks customers have taken to making up a fake Starbucks name to write on their cups - not good. And yes, you can go overboard with saying somebody's name too many times. So do not overdo it.

Frank says he's not aware of any specific research or number of how many times is too many. It's really a judgment call.

HERSHIPS: Yeah. And it still feels like it's kind of super easy for the strategy to backfire. It feels a little disingenuous, I think. But I guess not. The research says that it works.

CESPEDES: Well, I mean, you know, it depends what you mean by disingenuous. If you think somebody is trying to persuade you to buy something - of course. But I think that's what we call sales. And, you know, in a free market, it's a free choice. I find absolutely nothing dishonorable or disingenuous about that.

WOODS: I have to say, Sally, I am a little surprised. I would have thought that some people would find it irritating. But I guess we're hearing that the common wisdom is that if you do it right, it works. It's considered best practice. Still, Frank says there is one exception.

CESPEDES: I don't think there's anything creepy about another human being calling you Ms. Herships or Sally. I do think it gets creepy and getting creepier when machines do this. You know, here in Boston, the mayoral primaries are heating up. So every day, I've got a couple of robocalls that begin, Frank, now is the time for you to do X.

HERSHIPS: But at the same time, tech is trying to imitate us. It is trying to sound and feel more human. And we are also using robots' names like Alexa and Siri. Still, it's rough. Robocalls are not going to win. But Dale Carnegie did, and he changed his last name. He changed the spelling from E-Y to I-E to sound like the steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie.

WOODS: If people are going to repeat your name, make it a powerful one.

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HERSHIPS: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Julia Ritchey with help from Isaac Rodrigues. It was fact-checked by Taylor Washington. Our senior producer is Viet Le. Our editor is Kate Concannon. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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