Sentiment analysis and understanding how to deliver bad news

Evaluating customer communications means tricky choices about the right strategies. And can AI help?

By Pamela Mugford

One of the more difficult realities of customer communications is the necessity to sometimes deliver unwelcome news. Whether it’s a loan denial, notice of an overdrawn account or a form of crisis communication, interactions that may elicit a negative response from customers must be handled with care.

Luckily, there’s no shortage of good advice around communicating sensitive news effectively. Best practices include writing at an appropriate comprehension level so that it can be understood by the recipient, clearly stating the facts of the situation, providing straightforward explanations for decisions and being as concise as possible. For larger banks that seek to develop deeper relationships with customers and shed any reputations for being impersonal or cold, a common piece of wisdom is to communicate with empathy, by putting a neutral or positive spin on unwelcome news. However, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. As with any tough conversation, it’s also important to consider the severity of the situation and to use caution when determining the right tactics or sentiment to leverage.

Sentiment is defined as an attitude toward a situation or event. While communicating with empathy may sound easy in theory, knowing how to express the right sentiment can be challenging. It can be helpful to look at communication tactics in other scenarios to help us consider how sentiment impacts an individual’s ability or willingness to receive, understand and act on a communication.

How overly positive sentiments can backfire

Research shows that simply seeing the word “no” is enough to release stress hormones in the reader, an effect shared by emotionally charged words like “poverty,” “illness” and “death.” When released, these stress-related chemicals result in impaired logic and reasoning and can reduce language comprehension by up to four school grade levels.

Particularly in spoken conversations, a common strategy used to mitigate the impact of negative news is the “bad news sandwich,” where bad news is bookended by two pieces of good news. While advocates of this approach say it balances the positive with the negative, it can also leave recipients confused about whether the news was good or bad, leading to a lack of clarity around how they should respond. This approach erodes the company’s credibility and reduces trust when the two pieces of good news seem disingenuous. In short, this approach distracts the recipient with extraneous information and may mean they don’t grasp the true consequences of the situation.

The consequences of overly negative sentiments

Conversely, communications created in the hopes of shocking the recipient into action can stray too far. Like the use of overly positive language outlined above, this approach can impair comprehension, sometimes even inducing a fear response that results in no action at all. In this case, a customer will focus on managing their fear, rather than taking actionable steps toward a resolution.

In 1975, researchers studying this phenomenon developed the Protection Motivation Theory, which is helpful for understanding how persuasive communication influences behavior and the factors that might prompt someone to follow a recommended or protective course of action. Whereas prior research presumed that these thought processes were similar to a straightforward cost-benefit analysis, protection motivation theory takes additional context into consideration, such as the perceived scope of the threat and the perceived effectiveness of the proposed solution or coping mechanism.

The theory establishes that we will take a recommended course of action only if we believe both that the threat is real and significant and that we can avert it by taking action. If the perceived threat level is low, possibly because of overly positive communications and reassurance, the customer may not see the threat as significant enough to warrant a response. If the threat is presented too negatively or the suggested action is perceived as too difficult, then the customer will focus on controlling their fear response instead of taking action.

Say the right thing with the help of AI

Expressing the right combination of positive, neutral and negative sentiments can be tricky. One incredibly useful tool for navigating these situations is AI-powered sentiment analysis, which can help marketers assess communications and the likelihood that they’ll provoke the desired action from the customer.

Sentiment analysis is powered by natural language processing and identifies the emotional tone behind a body of text, providing a way to evaluate your communications. NLP can also be used to analyze the reading comprehension level of communications to determine how easily they will be understood by customers. With half the US population reading at or below an eighth-grade level, it is incredibly important to replace complex language and jargon with plain language wherever possible. With the introduction of generative AI tools like ChatGPT by OpenAI, it is now possible not only to identify potential content issues, but also to receive rewrite suggestions as to how to resolve them. While some teams may be experimenting on their own with ChatGPT and others directly, leveraging these solutions embedded in customer communications management solutions provides not only higher quality results and convenience, but also guardrails that ensure your corporate data isn’t being put out into the public domain.

Due to the sheer volume of considerations that need to be addressed when it comes to the various marketing communications a bank produces, the prospect of optimizing customer communications can be intimidating. However, strategizing around sentiment and reading level, including the utilization of today’s AI-based solutions, can help with the assessment of individual correspondence while offering visibility into the impact of your communications overall. Especially when implemented with solutions that manage your content and communications, these strategies not only streamline the process of generating communications, but also provide another way to positively affect the customer experience.

Pamela Mugford, CMO, leads go-to-market strategies for Messagepoint, a provider of customer communications management software.