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Why Tone of Voice Matters in Customer Service, ESPECIALLY Online

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How to strike the right tone with your online customers, every time.

“And by the way, I don’t appreciate the condescending response.”

I was confused, embarrassed, and frankly, scared that I had just alienated an important client.

Years ago, when I was working at my first “real” job at a marketing agency, a customer had asked me for clarification on how we calculated a particular number in a report that we had sent him.

I responded with what I thought was a thorough explanation, and as I fired off the email, I happily thought, “this should clear things right up.”

Boy, was I wrong.

Not only did it turn out that my explanation didn’t help at all, but the customer was apparently offended at my email.

It took a bit of discussion to smooth over, but it turned out that he found my general tone—and use of a smiley face—condescending as I explained our method.

I didn’t say anything rude or condescending; it’s the way that I said it that the customer misinterpreted as rude.

I was lucky in this situation, as I was able to explain myself, apologize and mend the relationship… but that isn’t always the case.

It was also the moment that I realized just how important tone of voice is in customer service, especially online.

Understanding How Our Brains Process Tone of Voice

How can tone make such an impact on the way our words are interpreted?

Well, part of the reason is that our brains process the words we hear separately from the tone in which we hear them.

In fact, 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:

So when we say something to customers — or anyone — their brains interpret the meaning of what you say by both your words and your “melody.”

But we don’t just interpret tone from words we hear; our brains process the words we read in a similar way.

A 2012 study in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that when we read, we trigger an “inner voice” in our brains that reads the words as if we were hearing them, allowing us to pick up on nuances like tone and inflection.

Think about the last fiction book you read that you really loved. Do you remember coming across passages where the main characters were speaking, and you could almost “hear” their voices in your head?

Try reading this paragraph from Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street silently, and see if you find yourself hearing the tone in the characters’ — especially the baby’s — words:

Pretty crazy, right?

Now imagine that every time you write an email to a customer, they’re doing the exact same thing you just did, except in their heads, they’re assigning that voice and tone to you.

That’s why it’s so important to consider the impact of our tone, even when we’re sitting behind a keyboard.

Tone in Customer Service: What Matters Most

Sure, we understand that using the right tone is important, but what is the right tone?

Well, that depends. On a lot of things. But below, you’ll find the three most important factors when it comes to customer service tone; act on these, and you’ll be ahead of 99% of your competitors when it comes to delivering great service in the right tone.

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.

Perfecting Your Customer Service Tone

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.

Have you found your own customer interactions impacted by tone? Have you noticed any changes in your customers’ reactions when you’ve changed your tone?

Let me know in the comments.

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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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