In 1967, Albert Mehrabian came up with the “7%-38%-55%” rule determining that communication is made up of three parts:
- The actual words you use (7%),
- The tone of delivery (38%), and
- The body language accompanying your words (55%).
Merely using positive language in conversations (e.g., “thank you”) only has a 7% impact on customers. To truly connect with your audience, you need to also incorporate positive tone of voice and body language. This is true for over the phone, in person, or in writing.
Tone of voice definition
Tone of voice can mean a few different things, but it usually comes down to attitude—i.e., the quality or feeling expressed by the words you are using.
For example, MailChimp offers an example of tone as being distinct from
“There’s a difference between voice and tone. Look at it this way: You have the same voice all the time, but your tone changes. You might speak in one tone to your closest friends and family, and a different tone with your boss.”
Jay Ivey, an analyst at Software Advice, a company that evaluates customer service systems, says that customer service tone of voice over email, chat or any other textual content is conveyed solely through language—i.e., diction, syntax, punctuation in writing—not through the speaker’s tone-of-voice or body language.
Customers can be just as sensitive to attitudes conveyed in writing through textual communication channels as they would be through verbal ones. It’s important for your customer support staff to understand how subtle differences in word choice or punctuation can change the tone of their content, and how to decide which tone is best based on the listener’s emotional state and expectations.
What tone of voice should customer support use?
Choosing the right tone for your customer support staff is not a one-off task. Tone needs to constantly evolve to meet the needs of your varying customer base. Thankfully, a specific tone of voice to be used in textual content can be adopted and adapted by an entire support staff. They’re often included in the company’s writing guidelines.
You need to train your customer service staff to be empathetic to the needs of the customer. If they’re particularly annoyed about something and just want to see their problem solved, it’s not a good idea to joke about how “annoying it must be”or how “that must suck.” Your customer is already irritated because of your company—don’t think about adding fuel to the fire.
On the other hand, if the customer is writing back in way that indicates they’re willing to play along, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of humor in your content (if used with discretion). It can lighten the mood and just might go viral.
Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to tell what kind of tone your audience will prefer. Software Advice went ahead and researched what kind of tone people prefer in various support situations, which we’ve outlined below.
Note: Software Advice’s research focused on email support, but could apply just as easily to other channels.
Customers prefer informal banter
Adopting a neutral tone is perhaps the safest method for support staff to engage customers, but sometimes it’s not what the doctor ordered.
In the first survey conducted by Software Advice, 65% of customers preferred their support staff to have a “casual” tone in the contents of their interactions.
Interestingly enough, the distribution was consistent across all age and gender demographics. No matter how young or old the customer was, they typically preferred a casual tone.
Pro tip: Be a human, not a robot. Whenever you’re communicating with a customer, loosen up a bit and use natural language in your writing. Contractions and exclamation points aren’t off-limits, so don’t be afraid to add some character!
Although customers generally prefer a more human, friendly tone, each support interaction is different. A service staff must be able to assess the situation and react appropriately.
For example, according to Jay Ivey, customers are likely to interpret a casual attitude in a delicate situation as being insensitive, condescending, or otherwise inappropriate.
An overwhelming majority of customers—78%—would be dissatisfied if their request was denied using a casual tone. In contrast, if a request was granted in a formal tone, only 35% said it affected their satisfaction.
A support staff must be careful when dealing with those who are angry or upset. Those customers are much more likely to be sensitive to the tone in the contents of the exchange. The best course of action is to keep the tone neutral and rely on other techniques to help defuse the situation.
Colloquialisms are sometimes inappropriate
Casual banter can sometimes go too far.
In the last decade emoticons [ ;P ], emoji, and colloquialisms [“lol”] have become commonplace in the contents of digital communication. They add some extra character to a sentence, sure, but is it something that everyone can appreciate?
Although 49% of customers didn’t consider any of the listed options as too casual, 35% felt that emoticons were too informal for support services. Similarly, 26% said the same about colloquial words.
Jay Ivey does offer a caveat here. Unlike support emails, live chat is inherently more casual. The back-and-forth style of chat makes it easier to remember there’s a real human being with some personality on the other end. Sometimes, liberally using emoticons or colloquialisms in the contents of the chat might actually be appropriate, just so long as agents are conscientious of the reader’s needs on the other side.
Pro tip: Read the situation. If the customer is using emoticons or colloquial language, feel free to respond in kind. Just don’t go overboard and treat it like a bad Twitter post.