Use the right tone of voice to increase customer satisfaction

By Abhiroop Basu

Published October 2, 2015
Last updated December 23, 2020

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 a customers—which doesn't go a long way in improving customer satisfaction. To truly connect with your customers, you need to also incorporate positive tone and body language. Tone 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 identifies its tone as distinctly different from its voice:

“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 a speaker’s “tone” over email, chat or any other textual medium is conveyed solely through language—i.e., diction, syntax, punctuation—not through the speaker’s tone-of-voice or body language.

Customers can be just as sensitive to attitudes conveyed through textual communication channels as through verbal ones. It’s important for your customer support staff to understand how subtle differences in word choice or punctuation can change tone, and how to decide which tone is best based on the listener’s emotional state and expectations.

What “tone” 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.

You need to train your customer service staff to be empathetic to the needs of the customer. If the customer is particularly annoyed about something and just wants 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 add fuel to the fire.

On the other hand, if the customer is willing to play along, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of humor if used with discretion. It might just go viral.

Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to tell what kind of tone your customer 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.

Customer preferences for CSS agents' tone

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. When communicating with a customer, use conversational language. Contractions and exclamation points aren’t off-limits!

When communicating with a customer, use conversational language.

Context matters

Although customers generally prefer a more human, friendly tone, each support interaction is different. Customer 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.

Impact of support agents' tone on customer satisfaction

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, customers don’t tend to care as much—only 35% said it affected their satisfaction.

Pro tip: Customer support staff must be careful when dealing with customers who are angry or upset. Those customers are much more likely to be sensitive to the tone that is being used. 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 digital communication. However, is this something that customers appreciate?

Elements customers find too casual for support emails

Although 49% of customers didn’t consider any of the listed options as too casual, 35% felt that emoticons were too informal for customer support. Similarly, 26% said the same about colloquial words.

Jay Ivey does offer a caveat here. Unlike customer support email, live chat is inherently more casual. The back-and-forth nature of chat makes it easier to remember there’s a real human being on the other end. Sometimes, liberally using emoticons or colloquialisms might actually be appropriate.

Pro tip: Read the situation. If the customer is using emoticons or colloquial language, feel free to respond in kind.

This post originally ran on the Zopim blog.

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