Tone of Voice in Customer Service: How to Avoid Sounding Like a Jerk

Have you ever tried calling a customer service line only to be greeted with a dull ‘Hello, you’ve reached Acme, how can I help you?’? Of course you have. I bet those instances didn’t make you feel very appreciated as a customer – a lesson you might have taken to heart as far as your own business goes. The thing is that the process of communication, business environment being no exception, contains certain intangibles. It’s not only about what you say, but also how you choose to say it. In this post, I’ll focus on using the right tone of voice in customer service and give you a tip on how you can save yourself from sounding like a jerk to your clients. Let’s go!

To start things off, I’d like to refer to Albert Mehrabian’s 7%-38%-55% rule and put it in the context of customer service. Essentially, what he found during research was that communication consists:

  • 7% of the the actual words being said
  • 38% of the tone of voice being used
  • 55% of the body language being displayed

It needs to be noted, however, that these proportions apply only when the communicator is expressing their feelings or attitudes – an instant prevalent in customer service. Now that we have some scientific footing, let’s dig in deeper.

The importance of tone of voice in customer service

Varying tone of voice is something we’re all familiar with, yet might not be able to define precisely. For the purpose of this article, let’s leave out specialist linguistic definitions and assume that tone of voice is a way to express the feeling you attach to a statement, a method of conveying attitude. A person’s voice stays the same most of the times, their tone changes, depending on the feeling underpinning the message being communicated.

Obviously, using the right tone of voice when talking to a client is a huge part of the overall experience they develop when contacting your company. So, how do you make this experience positive, that is, how do you determine the right tone of voice?

  • Formal vs. casual – in order to be able to decide which way to go, you need to know who’s on the other end of the communication channel. A sensible thing to do is to reflect the conversation partner’s tone of voice. An interesting survey from the customer service industry analysis company Software Advice has shown, that 65% of customers using email prefer support agents to use casual tone, regardless of their age or gender. This comes with an asterisk though – in case of being denied a request, customers prefer formal tone.
  • Positive vs. negative tone – you’ve probably read on many occasions that positive thinking is key to success. The same goes for reading positive words, which if done frequently, can develop more of an overall positive attitude. This means that the right tone of voice, or writing for that matter, has to be devoid of words carrying negative meaning and assume can-do attitude.
  • Context-specific tone – context is very important when it comes to using the right tone of voice. Not every circumstances will allow for being casual, just as not every person will be fine with it, especially in business environment. Again, it’s good to be able to reflect the customer’s way of speaking or writing. Whether they’re using emojis, slang, or sound like English might not be their first language, you have to be able to adjust to that. An extra care should be delivered to frustrated clients by being empathetic and reassuring. It’s like personalized communication in a lot of ways.

More science behind tone of voice

You might have noticed I strayed a little from referring to tone of voice purely in terms of vocal conversations. I did it for a good reason too. There’s more science, apart from Mehrabian’s research, I’d like to refer to.

One study suggested that words and tone of voice are received by two separate sections of the brain. Words are interpreted by the left hemisphere and tone by the right one, which is also responsible for processing music. This means that the recipient of a message interprets words and melody, conveying mood, gender, etc., separately.

Why is this important for this post and why will I keep using ‘tone of voice’ also for written form of communication? Well, take a look:

Similarly to the voice processing patterns just discussed, reading triggers an inner voice, which gives tone to the text being read silently. This can be achieved, for instance, through lexical moderators – exactly what I tried to do in this post’s lead, where I preceded the imaginary customer rep’s sentence with the word ‘dull’.

Think of reading a novel. Surely, you must ‘hear’ the way different characters speak in your head and that’s nothing to worry about, don’t look for a shrink, you’re not losing it. Your brain assigns tone of voice to written text too. That’s something to think of the next time you’re using an email or live chat for customer service purposes.

What’s wrong with telephone customer service?

Right, so we’re finally getting to the main course. I promised to reveal a way you can make sure to always sound professional to your clients, be it over telephone or in writing and I’ll keep my word.

Now, before I’ll proceed, let me tell you why I think you should listen to what I have to say, since you may be wondering ‘what’s this guy know about tone of voice?’. Well, it just so happens that I have quite serious experience in customer service support and had my dose of difficult conversations. I have heard my own voice recorded on many occasions and I can tell you a client can sense the attitude by your tone of voice right away.

There may be days when agents will not be at their best. They may have a cold, something might have gotten them upset on their way to work, it’s an early Sunday morning in the middle of winter and they have to come to work – you get the gist of what I’m trying to say.

Saying the right thing isn’t enough, you need to be able to convey appropriate emotion through tone. Unfortunately, customers will very easily pick up the fact you’re bored, unenthusiastic or disinterested.

We’re all human, sometimes emotions get the best of us and it gets reflected in our tone of voice. There’s a solution, however, that not only deals with the issue of not always sounding professional, but also creates new ways to communicate.

Tone of voice and body language in online environment

As exemplified by the research concerning the assignment of inner tone of voice to printed/displayed text, the way you type online matters. Adjusting vocabulary, using positive language and recognizing the context of communication are all crucial to delivering excellent customer service.

And then, there’s the online body language that might have caught your attention when you read the header of this section. What I have in mind are emojis, yes, the neat little icons, which have evolved past the most basic facial expressions.

Now, how does it all come together? I think you already figured that out.

The solution to customer service agents using improper tone of voice, sometimes largely beyond their control, thus creating negative customer experience is live chat. Some of its advantages when it comes to communication quality include:

  • it’s largely informal in nature, allowing for casual tone of voice desired by the majority of online clients
  • it solves all of the voice-related problems, which make agents sound unprofessional
  • it provides an opportunity to use body language online, something you can’t do over telephone, in the form of sophisticated emojis (this is a thin line, though, observe if the other party is using them and don’t create an overkill in any case)
  • it creates a buffer, which is especially useful with angry customers, whose inadequate handling by agents using inappropriate tone of voice may quickly worsen the situation
  • it’s also a tool that may be appreciated more if your customers are mostly younger people, open to new technologies, allowing them to save time and multitask online

Final word

My main point, summing things up, is that every communication channel has its nuances. There’s no single, right tone of voice, whether you’re speaking or typing/reading.

I do believe, however, that any customer service department can benefit from having live chat installed, as it creates a new dimension for communication, solving certain problems related to telephone-based service and creating otherwise unavailable opportunities, for instance, for using body language online.

Live chat lets agents focus on solving problems and not having to worry about how they sound, which may be a problem sometimes. The key to using it successfully is knowing who you’re talking to in order to assume the right tone of voice and get on the same page, sometime literally, by instantly sending links to websites, if necessary.