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The Right Tone of Voice For Every Customer Service Scenario

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Tone is one of the most important elements of communication. Here’s how to control it.

What’s the right tone of voice to use in your emails when you respond to customers?

What about in your social media replies?

Is it casual or formal?

Bubbly or business-like?

Should you use complete sentences? Or fragments?

The answer, of course, is it depends. And today, I’m going to show you how to figure out the right tone to use in any support situation.

Striking the Right Tone: 3 Things to Know

1) Casual vs. Formal Tone

Should your emails read like they were written by someone wearing a suit, or a t-shirt?

While the right answer largely depends on who your customers are (customers who wear suits are more likely to want service to match), a recent survey of the best tone for online support by the consulting firm, Software Advice, sheds some light on the issue.

Of the 2,000+ customers surveyed, 65% of online customers — across all ages and genders — prefer a casual tone in customer service over a formal one.

But there’s a twist: that preference shifts significantly when customers are being denied a request.

78% of respondents said that an overly casual tone (like using slang or emoticons) has a negative impact on their experience when the agent is denying a request.

By being too casual when you have to say no to a customer, you imply that you’re not taking their request seriously. It’s something that bugs me to no end, and as it turns out, it bugs your customers, too.

Another question that Software Advice’s survey explored was how customers reacted to emoticons in support emails.

The result? For most people, emoticons are just fine.

Only 35% of customers found emoticons too casual.

We use them from time to time in our own support interactions, so I wouldn’t hesitate to say it’s okay, but be aware of the situation. When you have to deliver bad news, stay away from the smileys.

As with all “rules” in customer support, take these with a grain of salt: the customers surveyed may not necessarily represent your customers (more on that below), but you can use these findings as a starting point for finding the best tone.

2) Positive vs. Negative Tone

In the book Words Can Change Your Brain, researchers Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman write that hearing positive words can actually change our brain.

They found that people who used and heard positive language regularly developed changes in their brain that made them feel more positive all of the time.

You can use the power of positive words in customer service to make your customers have more positive experiences, both in the moment and over the long-term course of your relationship with them.

One of my favorite examples of this comes from Carolyn Kopprasch, Chief Happiness Officer at Buffer.

To make her tone more positive, Carolyn removed the word “actually” from her vocabulary when talking to customer.

Notice how different the tone is totally different in these two extremely similar sentences:

Carolyn also dropped the word “but.” Again, the difference is easy to spot:

It’s simple but powerful: just by removing a few negative words from our customer interactions, we can completely change the way what we say is perceived.

3) Context-Specific Tone

As we saw with the dangers of being too casual when saying “no,” the right tone depends a lot on the situation.

It also depends on the specific customer.

But there’s good news: simply by practicing, you can develop the ability to pick up on each customer’s tone and mood, and adjust your tone to match it appropriately.

There are a few easy cues you can practice spotting in any email:

One company that does this really well is JetBlue. You can learn a lot about tone by watching their Twitter feed.

Notice how they tailor their tone to each customer.

When the customer is frustrated, they focus on empathy and apology:

When the customer is happy, but not using a super-casual tone, they do the same:

And when the customer makes it obvious that casual and edgy are both okay, the airline reciprocates:

Learning to pick up on your customers’ subtle cues makes delivering service in the right tone of voice much, much easier.

Getting Tone Right Takes Practice

One of the biggest challenges of finding the best tone is that there’s no “right” answer that works every time.

It depends on you, your brand, your voice and perhaps more importantly, your customers, who they are, and how they feel in a given situation.

But in customer support, every single interaction is a chance to get better. So by starting with a few research-backed guidelines and practicing conscious changes to your tone in every interaction, you’ll become an expert in very little time.

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About the Author

Len Markidan heads up marketing at Groove. He’s focused on helping startups and small businesses build better relationships with their customers.

Read his latest posts or follow him on Twitter

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