The 5 Crucial Elements That Define Your Customer Support Style
Make sure your customer support feels, works and looks the way you want it to.
As long as you eventually end up solving the issue, style doesn’t really matter in support, right?
The whole point of customer support is to successfully communicate information that allows either you or your customer to solve a problem.
Bad writing, formatting and even using the wrong tone make that communication hard to understand.
Unclear communication means delays and extra time spent on one issue.
Extra time on one issue means less customers helped.
Less customers helped means that both sides are unhappy.
We don’t want that.
Your customer support style matters, whether you’re writing emails, doing chat support, or putting together a self-serve knowledge base for your users.
Agreeing on certain rules, reference points and values in your customer support process—basically, putting together a simple customer service style guide—will help everyone doing support in your company be faster and more efficient at it.
And, even more importantly—your users will actually look forward to interacting with you.
Here are five things you should consider, agree on and consistently follow when thinking about your customer support style.
Voice and Tone
“Voice” and “tone” are often considered to be synonymous—they’re not. They are both connected to how the reader perceives what you’re writing, but they differ in stability:
Your voice conveys your steady personality, and remains the same most of the time.
Your tone conveys your current emotion or attitude, and depends on the situation.
For example, your general voice can be, say, straightforward. This remains the same throughout all of your communication, whether it’s work-related or personal. However, your tone changes based on emotions—both your own and others’—as well as the situation or setting you’re in.
Your voice doesn’t have to have just one definition. Neither do you have to restrain yourself to just the things that you want your voice to be, either.
MailChimp, for example, thinks of their voice as a comparison of what it is and what it isn’t.
MailChimp’s voice is:
- Fun but not silly
- Confident but not cocky
- Smart but not stodgy
- Informal but not sloppy
- Helpful but not overbearing
- Expert but not bossy
- Weird but not inappropriate
Think about what your company does, what you believe in as a team, and what you want to accomplish in your support communication.
If you haven’t yet, take some time to chat with your team members (everyone, mind you—not just support agents) and ask them how they’d like to be perceived.
Tone is a bit harder to clearly define or put down in writing, since it depends on the specific situation and emotions at hand. This is where empathy comes into play—easily the most important thing to look for when finding, interviewing and hiring your customer support agents. They should be able to naturally tune into what the person they’re communicating with is feeling, and adjust their tone accordingly.
The importance of considering the impact of our tone lies in the fact that our brains process the words we hear separately from the tone in which we hear them.
Sophie Scott, a neurobiology researcher at University College London, published a study suggesting that words and tone are sent to two completely different parts of our brain:
But we don’t just interpret tone from words we hear; our brains process the words we read in a similar way. So—your customers are able to take the tone of your written communication, and assign it to you in their head—which will then evoke exactly the same kind of emotions it would if it was spoken out loud.
The first and easiest thing to figure out tone-wise is whether you want it to be formal or informal—this depends entirely on your company. An informal tone is generally more relatable, but if you’re a law firm, you might want to pull back on that.
It’s also useful to define what you want your tone to not be, regardless of the emotions in play.
For example—no matter how many times a heated customer tells us to visit any amount of unpleasant places in all caps, our tone will never turn hostile, aggressive or accusing.
Constantly discussing and improving on what you want both your voice and tone to be means that it’ll start becoming second nature for everyone in your company, not just customer support.
“Personal service” is the “synergy” of the customer support world.
A buzzword used often—by support agents, customers and marketers alike—without thinking about what it really means.
Personal service is about making the customer feel like they’re doing business with a human, not a company.
Why is this important? Because when customers feel like they’re getting personal service, they become better customers. Happy customers buy more, they buy more often, and they tell their friends to buy, too.
A few years ago, a survey by Genesys asked more than 9,000 consumers about what mattered to them most when it came to doing business with companies.
40% of them said “better human service”.
A few main personalization aspects to concentrate on when it comes to your customer support style are:
Using names (theirs and yours). Dale Carnegie, author of the legendary “How To Win Friends And Influence People” (a book that every single customer support person should be able to quote in their sleep), said:
“Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language”.
Using your customer’s name makes them like you more, and on the flip side, using your own name makes the interaction feel more personal, too.
Besides using your own name, it’s also important to put a face to it. Using photos of faces doesn’t just increase conversion rates on your site; it help to humanize your business, build trust and make your customers feel as though they’re dealing with real people.
This means strictly no stock photos of random people wearing headsets, by the way—no reason to insult your readers’ intelligence like that.
For example, check out this customer support response from Missinglettr:
It’s a much nicer signature than just “X support team” with no face or name attached, no? Plus, there’s a puppy in the photo.
Or, you can even throw in a much bigger photo of a puppy for added wow factor, like Teamweek does:
Point is that adding a name and face to your support communication—puppy or no puppy—reassures your customers that they’re talking to a real person.
Some places to definitely consider adding a face and a name to:
- Email signatures
- Chat support widgets
- Knowledge bases
- Instructional videos and walkthroughs
The final important thing that should come naturally to your customer support agents is doing your research before engaging in any kind of communication with the customer. Don’t ask questions you should know the answer to anyway. If there’s something you can find out about the customer without asking them, do it.
The best customer support interactions are the ones where the customer feels like they’re literally your only open support ticket, that they have your undivided, thorough and eternal attention, and that you know their business history like the back of your own hand.
Language and Structure
Now that you’ve got the feel side of your customer support style right, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty stuff of how your communication looks and actually plays out in action.
Grammatically correct writing is generally a given, but there are few other things you should agree on and follow, such as:
- How you format dates
- Which pronouns you use
- Use of slang
- Area-specific jargon and abbreviations
MailChimp has a great, extensive guide on grammar—pick out the things that you encounter a lot in your customer service communication, and agree on how to use them.
Another thing to think of is negative vs positive language. Think of the things nobody likes hearing, especially in customer support:
- “I don’t know...”
- “We can’t…”
- “You can’t…”
...and a few other phrases you should never use in customer service.
The easiest way to detect negative language in your support communication is to look for words like “can’t,” “don’t,” etc, and see if there’s a way to replace them. In your style guide, write down the phrases or responses you never want to use in support, and add an alternative.
- “I don’t know.” - “I’ll talk to the corresponding team member and get back to you ASAP.”
- “Please calm down.” - “I’m sorry. I understand. I’d be frustrated, too.”
- “No, you can’t do that.” - “Although that option isn’t available right now, there’s a similar option.”
When it comes to actually formatting your text, simplicity is key. Focus on making your communication as scannable as possible.
- The less amount of text, the better—make it short. Customer support isn’t the place to practice your novel writing skills.
- Using paragraphs—nobody has the time or attention span to pick out important information from a wall of text.
- Bullet points and lists—you’ll make everyone’s life easier by structuring information in a way that’s easy to read and follow. The bit you’re reading now is in a list. Nice, isn’t it?
- Bold and italics—you can use them to give more dimension to your text. Do not underline words unless some kind of formatting bandit has literally got you at gunpoint. It’s 2017. Underlined words mean it’s a link.
- Adding links—it’s generally nice to point them out, especially in instructional pieces. Instead of saying “Open the GIF of an adorable puppy” you can say “To open the GIF of an adorable puppy, click here”.
Basically—keep things as short and well structured as possible, and try to use correct spelling and grammar to come off as the well-rounded, intelligent person that you are.
If your piece of support content or communication includes a process that the user needs to follow, there are a few things to keep in mind to make it as smooth as possible.
First of all—the most important information needs to come before anything else. Sounds logical, right? Unfortunately, a lot of people tend to type faster than they think, so the hierarchy of information gets lost.
There’s a designated circle of hell for support agents who let you go through several steps and then notify you that there was something else you were supposed to do beforehand.
If there’s something the user absolutely needs to know before they get into the process of taking action, make it the first thing they see, before any actionable steps.
Most people don’t read through the entire list of steps before they start taking action, so make sure you’ve got your dependencies figured out—this isn’t something that your customer should have to do for you.
Another thing a lot of people don’t take for granted enough is chronological order. Make sure the order of steps in the support process makes sense and doesn’t interfere chronologically with any other steps.
If there’s no chronological order or dependencies between tasks, make the easiest ones the first ones. Completing a simple task provides the user with sense of accomplishment and makes them more confident when they get to the harder steps.
And finally—if there’s a process that the customer needs to go through in order to solve an issue, avoid distractions. Structure the instructions in a way that keeps them focused on the tasks on hand and won’t interrupt their workflow.
For example, additional materials that they might also find helpful should be at the end of the message, not mixed in with the main instructions.
If there’s a knowledge base article that contains everything they need, just link them to that and don’t add any excess information in the email.
The bottom line to keep in mind is that even though the process of fixing a certain issue can be obvious and easy for you—since you’ve done this over and over again for tons of people—for your customer, it’s the first time they’ve had to face it, and they find it way more complicated.
Keep it simple, but thorough, and avoid excess distractions to make sure everything stays on track.
Visual materials— illustrations, screenshots, graphs, videos, etc—are a powerful way to enrich your support content and keep users engaged.
However, with great power comes great responsibility. You should make sure every part of your support content is consistent and easy to follow, and visuals aren’t an exception.
First of all, as with any other type of repeated content, consistency is important. If your support content includes repeated use of any type of visuals, make sure that they’re more or less same-looking throughout your communication.
This is already edging its way into your company’s design style guide, but there are a few things you can keep your eye on even if you’re not a designer, such as:
- Font type
- Color usage
- Logo usage
Another thing to keep in mind is necessity. Visuals are a great way to enrich content, but they shouldn’t replace it. A control question to use is “if I took away this image/video/screenshot, would the message/instructions still be clear?” For example:
“Click the Knowledge Base button shown below:”
“Click the Knowledge Base button in the Help dropdown in the top right corner of the page:”
If you remove the image from the last guideline, the message is still clear.
This is important for mostly two reasons:
1) Making sure people with visual impairments can still follow the steps 2) In case your visual content fails
It might seem like a pointless thing to concentrate on, but you’ll be spending less time on dealing with people who can’t access an image/video/whatnot and need to come to you for help because there was no other way to extract information.
Some more technical aspects to keep an eye on:
File types: for example, certain image file types perform better than others.
Responsiveness: for example, if your user is on a mobile device, they shouldn’t have to scroll left and right to view the entire image in your knowledge base.
Browser compatibilities: for example, certain browsers are incredibly fussy when it comes to choosing which video players or files they’ll allow.
Most of these things fall into the competence of your designer and/or developer, but the basics are worth thinking about even when you’re sending a simple email with a file attachment.
Perfecting Your Customer Support Style
Figuring out what you want your customer support style to be like—how you come across and how your customer communication looks, feels and works—depends entirely on you, your brand and your voice.
However, regardless of your area of business, every single customer interaction is a chance to get better. Starting out with consulting with your team and agreeing on the basic things outlined in this post will already make your customer support process quicker and easier to adapt to.
What are the things you pay attention to most in your customer support style—and the things that you feel like you should keep a closer eye on?
Tell us in the comments!