Discover the impact of filler words when you are selling online: based on analyzing 1M calls (good, the bad and the ugly)

Filler words—like, you know, actually, kind of, um—are part of our everyday conversation, and we don't even realize it. Some research shows that it negates the speaker's credibility when you overuse it, whereas there are also enough research articles that talk about the positive impact.

But, what is the impact of filler words when you are selling online? Does it affect your sales outcome? Well, that's what this article is all about.

So, let's start with the basics.

What are filler words?

In a conversation, filler words are the set of short words (usually meaningless when taken out of context) that we often use to fill in the little pauses while thinking about what to say next. These words, though, are often used while speaking. They are never used while writing. They are the umms and uhs that sneak into our conversations whether we like it or not. But, the exciting aspect is that they perform two key roles:

  1. It gives you a moment to think and fills in for the otherwise awkward pause
  2. It lets the person on the other end of the conversation know that you haven't finished speaking and makes them listen actively.

The earliest use of fillers as a pervasive habit dates back to 1469. And it's not exclusive to the English language. The English um, for example, has a Korean equivalent 'eum' and a French 'euh.' And in modern times, even the most eloquent speakers like Barack Obama tend to use filler-words. And of course, to good effect. 

And some experts say you should probably use them every five seconds when you're speaking spontaneously. 

Now, putting things in the context of online sales — do top-performing sales reps use more filler words or less? Is there a correlation between 'closed deals' and the amount of 'fillers' used?

A study on telemarketers

Dr. Frederick Conrad (from the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society) conducted a study to measure the success rate of telemarketers in 2013. He recorded their calls to examine how frequently they used filler words and found that the success rates dropped in proportion to the number of fillers used.

Source: Journal from Brigham Young University

The common fillers used during sales calls and its impact

Let's take a look at the most common filler words we found when we used Avoma's conversation intelligence to analyze a million B2B sales call recordings.

We analyzed the usage of these filler words across the top, mid and low performing sales reps and account executives, and here's what we found:

  1. The mere usage of filler words as such didn't impact deals or sales outcomes.
  2. However, we saw that as the filler words went up, the deal close rates started dropping.
  3. Higher usage of fillers also had a direct impact on the overall experience of the prospect/customer.

When the usage of fillers were sparse:

The good news is —you needn't be hard on yourself trying to negate the usage of fillers completely. As per our analysis, when the sales reps used two filler words for every hundred words (2%), the results were positive. In such cases, it helped the prospects understand the better.

There were occasions where the usage of certain fillers improved the credibility of the sales rep. For example, we observed that every time a rep used the word 'um' before responding to an objection raised by the prospect, they found the rep to be honest and trustworthy. The fillers meant that the response given by the rep seemed less rehearsed and much like what happens when we try to recall information. 

When the usage of fillers went up:

As the usage of filler words went above 5%, we saw that the sales close rates dropped. And on a closer look, we realized the following:

  1. Prospects were less tolerant to filler words in cases where the ticket price of the deal was $5K/month and above.
  2. The disengagement happened in the first 30 seconds when the usage of "like" was more than three times.

Yet, we wouldn't hold it sacrosanct because we also see a lot of exceptions. 

For example, when a prospect is in their buying cycle and realizes that the product they are evaluating truly solves their problem and is a good fit, the purchase goes through, regardless of the fillers used by the sales rep.

On the other hand, what we observed is —when the sales rep did a great job of explaining the solution to the prospect's problem, using fewer filler words, the overall experience for the prospect was great. The lesser the filler words, the more confident the prospects felt about the rep's knowledge of the product and domain expertise.

What makes reps use fillers?

You can narrow down the cause of fillers into three main categories: anxiety, lack of preparation, and distraction.

Anxiety/Nervousness

Heightened anxiety tends to be the primary trigger for the usage of fillers. The ums and uhs are more frequent when a rep is trying to focus on multiple points of interest at the same time or especially when they transition into a new topic or begin a new sentence. Anxiety also makes people say things that they wouldn't usually say. When the rep is nervous, their mind is preoccupied with thoughts about the listeners and their opinions rather than communicating clearly.

Lack of adequate preparation

Preparation is another reason for fillers to occur. For instance, when the rep doesn't have enough context about the prospect beforehand and is not adequately prepared to address the pain points or objections brought up —they are caught up between two opposing thoughts. They are searching for the right things to say. And another interesting aspect, depending on your industry domain, is the usage of infrequent words (usually a concept or a technical term). For example, these are situations when you are unable to locate the right technical word; you pause and throw in an 'um' until you get the word or a close synonymous word.

Distraction

This one is the biggest reason. Often sales reps are distracted from the conversation because they are trying to take notes vociferously (either with pen & paper or using manual note-taking tools like Evernote). Consequently, they end up getting into moments of awkward silence which they try to fill in with hedge words and fillers like maybe, just, simply, etc.

Relevant read: Why Avoma built a note taking software

Given that we are working remotely, reps also tend to become distracted by someone or something in the room they are working from. And to keep control of the conversation, the reversion happens with the usage of fillers.

Steps to reduce fillers while selling online

When you communicate online, interpretation of what you intend to say becomes more complex than in-person conversations because of the absence of non-verbal signs. As such, no one likes to be sold to. Hence, rapport building with your prospect needs to happen in the first few seconds.

Related read: Why building rapport in remote selling is difficult?

Having looked at the past data on the impact of fillers in sales (as discussed above), I also did a poll on LinkedIn to understand how people perceive when a sales rep uses fillers in a sales call - and here's how it turned out:

Now let’s look at how to reduce the usage of fillers:

1. Record your calls

To reduce your use of fillers, you need to be aware of how often you use them in the first place. So, it helps if you start recording your online meetings and go back and listen to them. By listening to your calls, you'll recognize a pattern of filler usage. For instance, you'll see if you are using fillers when you forget something, or when you transition between points you want to discuss with the prospect, etc. 

It further helps if you can track the kind of filler words that you use the most. For instance, using Avoma, I could see that I use 'you know a lot more than other fillers, in a given week.

Source: Avoma trackers

As Scott Stratten says, every interaction between a brand and a consumer increases that person's affinity for the brand or reduces it. He further adds that there are no "neutral" gears in our feelings about companies or people, only "forward" and "reverse."  

So, as a sales rep, you want to take every opportunity to make your interaction with your prospects seamless. And thus improve their overall experience.

2. Gamify it with your team

Learning and improving yourself on fillers would be a lot more fun if you gamified it a little. Setting up a leaderboard on your tracker helps a lot in understanding where you stand in comparison to the average number of fillers used by your colleagues. The leaderboard serves as a great motivation to improve and have healthy banter with your team. 

As you see in the image below, our team's average number of fillers per meeting is 27. But the critical aspect to understand is the number of fillers used by each person can also be contextual.

For instance, Ashley (in the above leaderboard) is our Customer Success Manager, and in her case, it's not always filler words, but some are hedge words. For example, when it comes to discussions around pricing during account expansion, she uses hedge words like 'simply,' 'we may want to consider, etc., as a way of being polite. 

Therefore, while you gamify the process of improving yourself on fillers, please don't beat yourself on it. Take your context into consideration, and if some fillers in moderation help improve the overall experience of the conversation, then become more aware of such words. 

3. Practice speaking at a slower pace

As we discussed above (why reps use fillers), a lot of times, we use filler words because we try to speak faster than we think. In my early days of public speaking, someone taught me the importance of 'owning pause' and speaking slowly.  

Top-performing reps recognize that moments of silence can add more effect to the conversation. So, use it to your advantage when you can. 

By slowing down your talking pace, you automatically reduce the fillers because you give yourself more time to think about what you're going to say next. And when reps practice slowing down, they tend to come across as responsive than being reactive.

4. Have a structure to your conversation

We have realized that having a clear structure for your conversation helps you communicate better, and in turn, also reduces the usage of filler words. It also shows your prospects that you have done enough homework and want to help them accomplish their goals.

We recommend creating a structural template for the points you want to cover on your call, based on your use case — sales discovery call, support calls, proposal review calls, etc. Clarity of approach and sequence helps cut down fillers and get clear takeaways and next steps from your conversations.

5. Practice, practice and practice...

A lot of seasoned sales reps who speak fluently, confidently and with very few fillers are the ones who have practiced their art time and again. Sales leaders listening to your calls and giving you inputs can go a long way in accelerating your advancement.

But that said, great fluency and confidence come from knowing your product and understanding your prospect's pain point like the back of your hand. Guy Kawasaki once told me that the most significant skill for an evangelist is to demo a product well. With enough practice and the skill to actively listen, your fillers would soon get lower.

Related read: How to master video sales meetings

Final words...

Fillers aren't totally bad —when you use them in moderation, they can be very effective. The usage of fillers by sales reps isn't a deal killer, but too many fillers tend to turn people off quickly (in 8 seconds or less).

Successful selling starts with building rapport, trust, and relationships with your prospects, and we need to do everything in our ability to minimize the friction.

Happy selling!