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Mastering tone of voice in customer service: A how-to guide

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You’re trying to help a customer out with their issue but the conversation alone starts to feel like another battle somehow you’ve both entered into. 

It just seems like whatever you say isn’t getting through to them. You have the answers and you’re trying to explain it, but with every turn the customer puts up a fight. They’re getting frustrated and short with you, which in turn makes you feel unmotivated to do the job you were meant to do. Your smile fades, you’re irritated, but you’re still trying to close the case. 

Why won’t they just listen?

Where did this go wrong?

As a customer service rep, you’re well trained to help deal with regular concerns that arise. Need to guide someone through a locked account or issue a refund? No problem. But the other dimension of being a great rep is knowing how to talk to people.

Being approachable when you’re talking to customers is everything. Literally, everything. Even if you don’t have all the answers in front of you, communicating in ways that show you care and will do everything in your power to get the answers you don’t have builds reassurance for those who initially had little patience to begin with.

The easiest way to come across as more approachable is to be aware of your tone of voice. 

Before we get to the specifics on how to use tone of voice to attract and retain customers, let’s touch on the reasons why this is even worth your time to master. In this article, we’ll cover:

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The important role that tone of voice plays

Tone of voice makes up for everything that’s left unsaid. 

You might have heard of the 7-38-55 rule: communication is 7% spoken words, 38% tone of voice, 55% body language1. But when you consider how many of your conversations with customers happen in front of screens or on the phone, you start to realize that what you say is only marginally as important as how you say it.

Tone of voice refers to how you sound, literally, to someone. You can think of it as the rhythm in a song, rather than the lyrics. It’s the musical tone that’s distinct from your words—but can certainly add to it.

Different tones of voices convey different attitudes, which affects how a listener perceives you—using the same words but tweaking the tone can be the difference that makes someone appear friendly, supportive, and empathetic versus someone who comes off as cold, urgent, and authoritative. 

Why is tone of voice a key factor in customer service?

Having the right tone of voice gives you a personality that sets you apart from competitors who may also be trying to speak to your customers. 

It helps you cut through the noise as more and more conversations happen online, in public, and on our phones—that is, if you’re able to develop a clear voice. 

Beyond helping customers connect with your brand, there are some other benefits of developing your tone of voice:

  • A friendly tone builds trust: It lets customers know that the person speaking to them on the other end isn’t some faceless corporate entity. Think of the last good customer experience you had when you spoke with a company. What was their tone like? We’re willing to bet that they were friendly and human (i.e. not obviously reading off a script).Fortunately for you, businesses that have mastered tone are few and far between. Which means you have a real opportunity to set yourself apart here. Short of solving a problem for an irate customer right away (not always possible), your tone of voice is likely the next best thing to diffusing their anger. If you can combine those together, it’ll make it much easier to retain loyal customers who stick with your business.
  • A compassionate tone helps you recover the relationship: A third of customers will leave a brand that they love after just a single bad experience, and 92% would abandon a brand after two or three negative interactions.2 Don’t let these moments define your long-term relationships. Get ahead of the curve, provide proactive support, and continue to nurture the relationship. 
  • Creating the mood improves employee motivation: Setting the tone of the conversation upfront allows the customers to speak within that emotional and mental space as well. Imagine being a customer picking up the phone ready to complain—and being met with a sunny support rep on the other end who asks about your day and shows compassion for your predicament. Not only is this kind of interaction pleasant for your customer, it creates a better employee experience too.

Contact Center Maturity Quiz

What influences your tone of voice?

Deciding what tone of voice to use is going to depend on the context. Here are three aspects you should be aware of:

1. Who you’re speaking to

Everyone has their own personal style of speaking that they’re used to. Are they short and to the point? Expressive and verbose? Mirroring a customer’s style (in a subtle way that’s not obnoxious) in conversation can be a powerful way to build a connection and rapport. 

Figuring out what that style is during a short interaction is actually pretty difficult. The best way to know what kind of tone to use with a customer is to have a relationship with your customers. That means logging your conversations and interactions with them, and having that information easily accessible to your whole team.

That’s where having the right tool really comes in handy. Most CRMs or customer service software tools let you do this. For example, RingCentral Engage Digital™ does exactly that—and even integrates with your CRM. Here’s a quick look at how it works: 

One of the biggest perks of using RingCentral is that it can unify all your digital conversations (across platforms like WhatsApp and Twitter) so that you have one consolidated view of your customer’s history and conversations with your business. 

Why bother with this? Well, your customers probably interact with multiple people on your end over the course of their relationships with you. Maybe they’ll interact with multiple customer support reps when they call in or email you, for instance. Are you going to make them repeat their information every single time? We hope not, because having to start these conversations over and over again is one of people’s biggest pet peeves:

annoyances about calling companies

Having this kind of tool can help you create a consistent tone in your customers’ experience with you, and make it feel like the kind of personal relationship where you remember things like their product preferences (and even their birthdays). Wouldn’t that be a good relationship to have with your customers? 

2. What you’re speaking to them about

Personal styles are preferences that can still shift depending on what the situation is. A frustrating customer who’s calling in to expedite the situation (and to vent a little…) will expect a different response than what they might typically be used to.

You can dial up or down your level of casualness or formality depending on the context. For instance, 78% of customers prefer customer service reps to speak more formally when they have to decline their requests, whereas during a neutral exchange, 65% of customers prefer to be spoken to with a more casual tone.3

Knowing this, you might decide that in situations where you’re solving a problem, it’s better to drop the slang and shorthands (“brb haha”), and instead show demonstrate compassion for the issue and reassure that you’re able to help.

3. The channel through which you’re speaking to them

The tone you use is going to depend on what channel you’re speaking to customers through.

In-person or on the phone, you can adjust pitch, pacing, and inflection. But through email or chat, you have to rely on punctuations (exclamation marks are friendly, but don’t go overboard like with this sentence!!!), sentence structure, or even sometimes an emoji or two 👋 🙂 .

It helps to get a sense of what conversations sound like through different channels. On social media, short and casual messages tend to be more acceptable. Chat messages also feel casual like talking to a friend, whereas email might still feel like it holds the most weight and formality.

💡 Pro-tip: 

Regardless of where a conversation starts, sometimes you’ll need to redirect an issue over to another channel to be handled. For instance, a customer might reach out with a question through email that’s best resolved through a video call with screen share. If that happens pretty regularly, you might want to look into a contact center solution (like RingCentral) that makes it easy for you to transfer these conversations seamlessly. By connecting all your communications under one tool, you can easily route messages to another rep or provide support on any channel (Facebook, email, Twitter, chat, phone, etc.).

Examples of how to adjust tone in different customer service interactions

You’ve taken note of the who, what, and the how, but what does this actually sound like in practice? Let’s take a look at some of these techniques in action:

How to mirror your customer’s tone

Sainsbury is a popular grocery chain in the UK that gets a lot of customers tweeting at them about their products and store updates. For the most part, they tend to respond with a positive helpful tone. But occasionally, when a customer sends a wit-filled tweet their way, Sainsbury responds with their game face on and the pun showdown begins.

This particular scenario doesn’t call for any specific issue resolution, and it sounds like the customer is mostly trolling Sainsbury in good fun. But instead of ignoring the customer, Sainsbury plays along, mirroring the same wit back to the customer to create a memorable experience for him.

How to adjust tone when speaking through social media

Hootsuite is a social media management platform with a separate Twitter account (Hootsuite Helpers) to connect 1:1 with customers experiencing issues.

In the exchange below, the customer has a complaint phrased in a way that suggests she’s probably facing some frustration. Even though the problem doesn’t exist because of Hootsuite’s product, they still respond within the hour and with a friendly opener (addressing the customer by name with an exclamation). 

They keep it short and casual by mirroring the message length and using a thinking emoji to lighten the mood. All of this works though because at the end of the day, they are offering support by providing a to-the-point recommendation:

hootsuite help tone of voice

The customer is pleased with the resolution, and Hootsuite tweets back with an uplifting tone. Customer leaving satisfied? Check.

💡 Pro-tip: 

By the way, we don’t think separate customer service accounts are completely necessary if you’re not a large team dealing with multiple branches or lines of customers. If you’re a small business (or even if you have one or two people running your customer support team), then one profile per relevant social media channel is more than enough to handle incoming customer feedback as well as push out product or service news.

How to use tone to influence—without sounding overly forceful 

Email is still a common go-to channel to reach customers with call-to-actions. It gives the customer a chance to digest information on their own time, especially when they need to make a decision.

Active Network, an event management software provider, decided to put their communication tone to the test by having two separate emails go out with the same call-to-action (to get in touch with them).

The first is written with a direct-style, informative tone that lists the benefits for the customer:

direct tone of voice with customers

The second is written in a more helpful tone, which addresses the customer’s hesitations and lets them know what Active Network does to help them:

helpful tone of voice in customer interaction

With only tone at play here, the second email led to a whopping 349% increase in lead inquiry!4 Being empathetic and reassuring won customers over as opposed to being authoritative and urgent.

How to adjust tone based on the channel of communication 

jetBLUE is an airline that’s known for their amazing customer service. Part of the reason they stand out in this area is that they have such a good grasp on how to meet their customers where they are. 

In response to a customer’s complaint over email, they crafted back a more formal email that completely hit the mark. It addressed the issue from the customer’s point of view, was sensitive to their frustrations, and provided a resolve tailored to the individual. They came across as compassionate, apologetic, and confident to never let the same mistake happen again. 

For a customer to have taken time out of their day to detail their case with expressed disappointment, you better bet they’re expecting you to take them seriously:

jetblue tone of voice in customer email

For another complaint sent via Twitter, rather than a long-form response, jetBLUE replied with an understanding tone of voice and offered a credit for the customer’s inconvenience. 

On social media, news moves quickly and messages get buried sometimes within minutes of posting. Customers who reach out to businesses through this channel are looking for an immediate solution, and they don’t have a lot of time to waste:

jetblue social media tone of voice

How to build a consistent tone of voice in your communication 

Being thoughtful when speaking to a customer often comes down to what tone of voice you use. But what does it take to be more thoughtful during conversations with customers, and moreso, how do you make sure it’s consistent so that every customer you talk to has that same experience?

A constructive way to think about this is from the very top—that is, from the brand. Ask yourself, “which of these brand identities do I fit into?”

brand personalities

This will give you a sense of what personality you’ll have come across to your customers. Once you have a clear picture of what the personality of your business is, you can start to craft your own distinct language or specific phrases that reflect who you are and how you sound.

For instance, instead of responding with a tired “you’re welcome,” you might consider using “My pleasure!” to suit a personality type that’s more upbeat and down to earth. Identifying vocabulary and phrases to live by and that all members of your support team can use creates an identity for your business. When these start to be used consistently, customers will associate how you sound with what you do. That sort of brand recognition is priceless.

A tone of voice style guide will help you set the direction of how you want to carry yourself as a brand. In it, you can consider:

  • What specific language will we use with customers and when?
  • What attitude do we want to share with our customers?
  • What specific phrases will we replace common ones with?
  • How do we want our customers to feel when speaking with us?

This style guide will create a set of standards to help define your brand voice and how it’ll be used in different settings. It helps to build consistency, especially when you’re a new business starting out and having interactions for the first time. It also becomes a tool for new reps who join since conversation style isn’t something that’s exactly straightforward to pick up!

In general, we recommend using the guide as a reference only without getting overly prescriptive because conversations with customers should feel natural and not like a copy and pasted response. 

Creating a guide from scratch can be a heavy task—hopefully made easier through our tips below. 

7 tone of voice tips

1. Ditch the cliché 

No one appreciates a canned response. It comes across a bit thoughtless as though you’re on the other side of the screen reading off a script. 

Instead of: “Please hold, your call is important to us.” 

Try this: “I’m going to get my colleague Samantha on the line. She’s a specialist in this area and will be able to help us quickly resolve the issue.”

Sharing what the wait will be for or why the transfer is beneficial allows the customer to feel a part of the conversation rather than just be the recipient of it.

2. Merge your conversations

Tools like RingCentral can help you merge all customer conversations across SMS live chat, email, and social media into a single conversation. Having a single, full view of each customer lets you speak to them using a tone that’s consistent with their past experiences with you. 

3. Use first person 

Speak like you’re having a conversation, rather than putting down laws with an iron fist. Don’t be afraid to get personal by using the first-person pronoun, I. 

Instead of: “Sorry, our policy is that we do not issue refunds past the 30-day mark”.

Try this: “I know it’s only a day past due, but unfortunately our best option is to offer an exchange! I’m happy to set this up for you if that’s useful. Just let me know how I can help.”

4. Defuse a tense situation by acknowledging it

During moments of frustration, customers want to be heard. It matters less to them that you understand what they’re saying—what’s more important is that you acknowledge how it makes them feel and that their situation is unique.

Instead of: “I understand that your Wi-Fi connection has been down since this morning.”

Try this: “I can only imagine how difficult it’s been to go without Wi-Fi since this morning. We’re so sorry for the trouble you must have faced!”  

5. Reassure that you can help

After identifying the customer’s problem and acknowledging their concerns, it’s important to reassure them that you’ll be able to provide the assistance they’re looking for. 

Try this: “I can definitely help get this resolved for you,” or “It’s great that you alerted us. We have a way to fix this.”

6. Use positive language

Reframe negative references to make the experience feel more uplifting for the customer by using courteous language. 

Instead of: “We can’t do that because we don’t have the ability to do so in the system.”

Try this: “We’re working to make it possible to do this in the near future, but in the meantime, might I recommend another approach?”

7. Suggest, don’t instruct

If a customer reaches out for help, that’s because they don’t have all the information and are looking for your expert help. Skip the bossy instructions, and take on a more approachable tone.

Instead of: “You have to reset your computer to see the changes take effect.” 

Try this: “Can I suggest restarting to see if you notice the changes take place?”

Understanding the role tone of voice plays in customer exchanges

Having all the answers doesn’t guarantee that you’ll provide excellent customer service. Think about the last time you had to reach out to a business. What did you most want out of the exchange? Chances are, it’s one or a combination of these things:

  • To have an answer to my question
  • To be understood and acknowledged
  • To be met where I am 

At the end of the day, customer service is about providing a thoughtful and quality experience. While acts of service can deliver on that, so can choice of words and tone of voice. Communication skills can help you better position your advice so that it hits home with the customer (and not to mention, boost those Net Promoter Scores)!


Originally published Nov 05, 2020, updated May 29, 2024

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