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Getting the Tone Right in Customer Service: The How and Why - Livesalesman - Blog

Getting the Tone Right in Customer Service: The How and Why

“Use the right tone when speaking to customers.” If you are a calling agent providing phone support to customers, this oft-repeated guideline will surely ring a bell to you. Even if you’re not acquainted with the nuances of an inbound call center, chances are you must have replayed something similar in your mind when a certain verbal or written communication sounded rude or condescending to you. So, what is it about the “tone” that makes it so crucial in the context of customer service? Does it really matter whether you get the tone right or not? Read on to know more.

7-38-55 Rule of Personal Communication

According to Albert Mehrabian, an inconsistency of thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and beliefs arises when what we say is not in harmony with how we say it. He illustrates this point through his 7-38-55 Rule of Personal Communication which states that words only account for 7% of the essence of a message. The rest of the context is inferred from the speaker’s tone of voice (38%) and body language (55%).

In an inbound call center environment, assuming there is no video chat support involved, the relative impact of body language on the effectiveness of communication is null. For calling agents, non-verbal elements predominantly determine the quality of their phone conversations. Thus, unless the spoken words are congruent with the non-verbal cues (read tone, pitch, rate of speech etc.), there’s a risk of being misunderstood or being perceived as fake by the person on the other end of the line.

Correlation between the Tone of Your Voice and the Communication Channel in Use

In today’s digital age, phone and email are no longer the only modes of providing service to customers. Live chat, mobile and social media are also popular channels for customers to communicate with brands. Every communication channel has its own nuances around formality, tone, language style, etc. For example, emails are considered to be more formal than live chat or mobile communication. Thus, while it may be acceptable to use an informal tone when responding over live chat or mobile, the same may be looked upon as inappropriate when offering phone support or assistance via email.

The same goes for the use of emojis and emoticons. It is not uncommon to use emojis when communicating over channels that allow customer service agents to be more spontaneous. However, emojis are not recommended for relatively more formal communication channels like email. Occasionally, the use of emoticons (facial expressions created using keyboard characters) may be permissible for email responses. In most cases, it’s usually safe to replicate a customer’s communication style and tone, i.e., you can follow suit if you notice a customer using icons and digital images to convey his or her feelings and emotions.

Importance of Mirroring Your Customer’s Tone and Conversational Style

Ever wondered why it is so important for calling agents to adapt their tones and communication styles to that of their customers? That’s because no two customers are alike and conversational styles also differ from one to the other. Thus, while an unscripted and informal conversational beat may work for today’s millennials, the same approach may misfire when dealing with traditional users who may prefer a more formal style of customer service. Also, bear in mind that today’s customers seek a more authentic and personalized service experience. Hence, addressing callers using their names and doing away with a cookie-cutter style of customer service are good strategies to accommodate changing customer tastes.

It is equally imperative for inbound call center agents to ensure that their tone is a reflection of the voice of their customers. Thus, if a caller exhibits a warm and friendly demeanor, one should reciprocate likewise using an amiable and easy-going tone (of course, without sounding too casual). Alternately, if a caller sounds formal or distant, care should be taken to avoid an overly friendly or conversational tone that may irk him or her. When declining requests or dealing with angry customers, a formal but compassionate attitude is suggested as a casual approach may be interpreted as insensitive or uncaring. Furthermore, instead of using intensely negative words to communicate the “No”, leverage “Service No” or “Positive No” to pass on the message without sounding rude or unemphatic.

Despite being popular as “web lingo” or casual forms of conversation, words or phrases like “LOL”, “TTYL”, “BRB”, “Wassup”, “Kinda”, “No worries”, “stuff like these” etc. lack a professional tone and are not suitable for use in customer service. Similarly, the use of heavily idiomatic language is not desirable as colloquial expressions that are specific to one’s regional or local dialect may not be comprehensible or relevant for callers from other regions. Thus, while phrases like “push the boat out”, “put the cat among the pigeons” and “over-egg the pudding” may sound familiar to the average British, they may be confusing or indecipherable for the French, Korean or Japanese.

Lastly, in their efforts to get the tone right or when attempting to adapt their language style based on who they are speaking to or the context of their conversations, phone support agents must ensure they do not come across as unprofessional or inelegant in their discussions. And regardless of whether the tone of their discussions is friendly, humorous, formal, distant or casual, customer service agents should not forget the basic customer service etiquettes of active listening, politeness, empathy, and patience when assisting customers with their queries and issues.

Degree of Politeness

A warm, sincere, friendly and polite tone can go a long way in improving customer experience, cementing customer relationships and building brand loyalty. However, how polite is polite or what is the desired level of politeness in customer care support service is something that merits careful consideration. That’s because the perception of politeness varies from people to people. The ‘Politeness Theory’ of Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson asserts that conversationalists employ four main types of politeness strategies when attempting to mitigate face threats. Two of these strategies are positive politeness and negative politeness. Both emphasize avoidance of offense to the listener. However, while the former does this through friendliness, the latter exploits deference to achieve the outcome.

When attempting positive politeness, the addresser assumes a proactive and optimistic approach and strives to offer the addressee a sense of belonging by prioritizing his or her needs and interests. In contrast, those engaging in negative politeness strategies assume a distancing style which is marked by a pessimistic, apologetic and indirect approach. Such speakers are reluctant to communicate anything that can be objectionable, disrespectful or imposing to the listener. As an inbound call center agent, is it up to you to judge which politeness strategy best suits your customers, keeping in mind the latter’s expectations, communication styles, likes and dislikes.

Tweaking the Language to Elevate the Comfort Level of the Callers

Words to soften conversations and make them sound less direct and more polite: 

Altering certain verb forms and tenses or making use of words and phrases that indicate possibility, ability, permission, obligation etc. can significantly reduce the impact of face-threatening utterances and enhance the level of politeness in your conversations.

Case in point is the use of hedges (mitigating words, expressions and sounds), past forms of modal verbs (“could” instead of “can”, “might” in place of “may”, “would” as opposed to “will” etc.) and past simple or past continuous tense for verbs like “hope”, “want”, and “wonder”.

Consider the following examples:

“I expect a response within a day.” vs. “I was wondering if I could get a response within a day.”

“Restart the computer.” vs. “Could you just try restarting the computer once again, please?”

“This is not possible.” vs. “This seems less likely.”

“The service has deteriorated over time.” vs. “The service has somewhat deteriorated over time.”

In all of the above constructions, the use of words or expressions such as “was wondering”, “less likely”, “somewhat” etc. make the tone of the statements less forceful and more polite.

Another tactic to make your conversations seem less direct or assertive is to introduce vagueness into your constructions. Thus, rather than saying “It got uncomfortable after a point”, you could say “It got kind of uncomfortable after a point”.

When conversing with a customer, avoiding verbs and phrases that denote an imperative mood is a good strategy to make your discussions sound less commanding, indifferent or uncaring. Hence, instead of saying, “Pass me the file” which comes across as a command, you can say “Could you pass me the file, please?” to make it sound like a request. Bear in mind though that when issuing warnings, offering advice, giving instructions and directions, or making requests, the use of imperatives is allowable. Hence, exclamations like “Watch out, there is danger ahead!” or “Have a good day!” are acceptable.

Instilling confidence in the callers through added positivity and affirmation: 

There’s no denying that a positive attitude is crucial to positive customer experiences. When rendering phone support, inbound call center agents can demonstrate a positive attitude in their communication through the use of affirmatives or positive customer service phrases. Expressions, injected with intensifiers such as positive adjectives and adverbs, sound assuring to callers. For example, “I will surely look into this” sounds much more positive and affirmative than “I will look into this” or “I can look into this”.

As a customer service agent, it will be wise of you to master the art of leveraging the above-mentioned techniques to minimize the impact of certain utterances on the listeners; in other words, you must learn how to “soften the blow”.

Paraphrase to Achieve Greater Clarity and Demonstrate Active Listening

When you are unsure of what’s been communicated to you, paraphrase the comment or feedback to seek clarity. When you paraphrase, you demonstrate to the customers that they have been heard, plus you express your intention to get more clarity to avoid any misunderstanding or misinterpretation of facts. A word of caution here. Paraphrasing doesn’t mean parroting back information as that’s plain annoying to the hearer. Rather it implies summarizing and restating facts in your own words to fully uncover the explicit and implicit meaning of the comment or feedback.

At LiveSalesman, we understand how important it is for your international customers to be able to speak to native customer service representatives who are familiar with their accents and cultural nuances. Hence, our multilingual inbound call center solutions are designed to employ the services of bilingual calling agents who are well-versed with English as well as the foreign language in focus. Our phone support agents are adept in adapting their tones and conversational styles based on a myriad of factors, including the tone of the callers, the specific communication channel in use and the nature of the conversations. Feel free to give us a call, email us or contact us today via live chat to get more insights into our outsourced services.


Publish Date: December 6, 2018

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