“May I call you Richard?”

genuine-interest-copyThis is the sixth post in a series that will explore a set of questions I received from participants during a webinar on the topic of customer service. (I say “explore” rather than “answer” because I’ve discovered over the years that there is rarely a single right answer to these types of questions. More often, there are a variety of solutions or guidelines that, when applied, produce successful outcomes.)

Question: What’s your opinion about addressing customers by their first names during interactions?

We tend to enjoy hearing the sound of our own name during conversations with others. By remembering and using our names, others express genuine interest in us and may, when names are recalled at a later date, make us feel valued and complimented.

That being said, it’s important to be sensitive to generational, cultural, and other differences when using customers’ first names in particular. My 76-year-old father-in-law, for example, resents being referred to as “Richard” by a 20-something barista when his coffee order is ready.

Also, last summer before I participated in a podcast that was recorded in England, I read up on communication differences between the U.S. and England. One of the conversational nuances that emerged from my reading was a suggestion to avoid stating my communication partner’s name repeatedly throughout the interview (e.g., “That’s a good question, Adrienne. The first thing I would do…”), as many Brits find this annoying.

Does this apply in every case with every English conversation partner? No. It’s a generalization. Even so, it’s something I’d prefer to be aware of than not.

The best advice I’ve heard relative to generational, cultural, or other differences is that the only true safe assumption is: don’t assume. Generally speaking, as it applies to the appropriate use of first names during conversations, this means requesting permission before using first names and, at least as it applies to the English culture, governing its use.

In the first paragraph, I suggested that there’s rarely a single “right” answer to these types of questions. You’ve read my response. Now it’s your turn. How would you respond to the above question?

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  • Curt Newport

    Great thoughts, Steve. I have a couple of similar approaches that I use, both when working with clients, as well as patients.

    I often default to the formal title (Mrs. Johnson, Doctor Smith), unless and until I am invited otherwise. You hit the nail on the head, speaking in terms of the generation you are addressing, that your communication partner may expect, and be offended if you fail, to be addressed by their title. If I am aware of a military rank (which I seek out if there is a chance, such is an a military retirement home or base), I use that (Good evening, General. It’s good to see you).

    When unclear, I might ask, “Would you like me to call you Mrs. Johnson?” The answer will either be something like, “Well, that’s my name”, or, “Gosh, please call me Janet.”

    My wife recently got a voice mail from somebody who did not speak very clearly, and it sounded like her name was “Debris”. This turned out to not be the case, but, again, clarification is a good thing.

    As with many things, especially in communication, assumptions are evil, and clarifications are usually beneficial.

  • Curt, thank you for adding titles to this conversation. They are equally important to acknowledge/use in order to avoid unwittingly offending those with military, professional, and/or academic titles by their omission.

  • Mary Smits

    Hi Steve, one small (hopefully not picky) piece of advice for your father in law – when he orders his coffee and is asked his name, he should state Mr …… Then the barista will call him that when his coffee is ready. If the barista has remembered his name from a previous order, maybe your father in law told him his name was Richard?
    I agree totally, that until you are invited to do otherwise you should call the ‘elderly’ person by their surname. It’s almost too simple a piece of advice to have to mention! It’s sad that there is a need to do so, and shows a lack of knowledge of good manners. Maybe it’s a generational thing?

  • Mary, thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I’ve observed that the display of poor manners is cross-generational. It may be true that younger generations are less sensitive to the effect of using the first names of mature customers and, thus, unwittingly offend them. And it may also be true that mature customers are less tolerant in their dealings with younger people, misinterpreting their lack of awareness/sensitivity as a lack of respect.