Understanding “Tone” & Its Impact On Conversations

Written by Ian Landsman · 05.23.2023

Ever find yourself nervously smiling when you’ve just heard bad news?

Has someone ever thought you looked mad when you’re simply just resting, waiting for something to happen?

Has anyone ever interpreted your “k” text message as short and irritated, when you were really just in a hurry to put your phone away because the movie was starting? Or thought you sounded
sad, when you’re really just tired?

It’s critically important for any person providing customer support and service to control how he or she comes across in any given conversation. What you say and how you say it matters. Tone helps to provide added emphasis,
intent and emotion behind the words you are saying.

In today’s post, we cover what tone is, why it’s so important, and how
tone can dramatically shift how a conversation proceeds and a message is received.

It’s Not Just What You Say, It’s How You Say It

Fact: Customer A’s product is no longer covered by warranty.

Fact: Customer B’s subscription requires an upgrade to get what they want.

Fact: …Your business messed up.

These are the facts. Common facts, even, that many companies may have to address on a regular basis.

How they’re communicated makes all the difference. Consider these examples of tone and how it may impact how you come across, whether in-person, over the phone or in writing.

Condescension, Derision & Annoyance

The wrong tone may imply negative things you didn’t actually say.

“Your product is no longer covered by warranty.” You should already know that. You should have purchased the extended warranty. You’re out of luck.

“Your subscription doesn’t include that feature.” You shouldn’t be so cheap. You should pay more. Why are you asking for that?

“We messed up.” Thanks a lot for complaining. Now my workday is harder.

derision and annoyance are three tones any support person must stay far, far away from.

  • They make you sound frustrated, which does not make a customer want to reach out to you again.
  • They make customers think “You’re annoyed? You’re not the person paying for your service!”
  • They make them feel like their question was silly, embarrassing them and pushing them to not interact with you next time they have a concern.
  • They make them feel like their patronage is not valued.

These negative tones make you sound like you’d rather not help the customer, and that it irks you to do so. This is not the way to build long-term relationships and brand advocates.

Boredom & Apathy

Now, you may not be coming off slightly angry… but when you sound bored and apathetic, you communicate that this service issue really doesn’t concern you at all. Their upset, or concerns – or even positive feedback! – really doesn’t impact your day.

  • Boredom and apathy will make customers think you’re not paying attention to them.
  • Your subscribers will be concerned your answers are just the easiest
    solutions, not the best solutions for their issue.
  • They’ll reconsider how valuable you find them as a client, and consider researching your competitors.
  • They’ll question your level of expertise. Are you detached because you actually can’t go that in-depth in helping them?

Customers notice this tone. Just check out the Twitter search for apathetic customer service.

That’s certainly not
a desired impression to leave.

Inappropriate Cheerfulness

Annoyingly chipper? Almost like you didn’t listen to the devastating story or situation your customer just told you? … Did you even listen?

Inappropriate cheerfulness can completely throw off the trajectory of a conversation, as your customer listens confused, thinking:

  • Why are you so happy? You must not have listened to me.
  • You clearly don’t understand my problem, and you’re not taking it seriously.
  • You find my problem silly, and you’re mocking me.
  • You’re simply just rude. I’d prefer to speak to someone else who will be more professional.
  • I’m a serious person, with a serious concern. We’re not in a candy shop or an amusement park.

It may even come off…

That last one may sound a little harsh. But your tone has to convey an understanding of who you are talking to and what makes them feel supported or confident in your services.

Professional? Or… Cold?

We thought a lot about this one. “Professional” isn’t necessarily a tone, but when we strive to sound professional, it can make you come across a number of ways: serious, responsible, intelligent, confident and acting with urgency. But done incorrectly, it can also cause you to sound cold, detached, and quickly more apathetic or condescending, as described above.

Not sure if your “professional” voice comes across more condescending than confidence-boosting and competent? Have a mentor or colleague review customer correspondence and ask for their feedback. Mock situations can also help you practice and prepare for providing better customer support in the future.

Supportive, Sympathetic and Understanding

These are the tones you want to strive for, nearly in all customer support situations. These tones require you to have solutions to problems that will make them feel heard, and feel like you care about their ongoing relationship with your business.

Let’s go back to our original three facts.

“We’re sorry, but it seems your product is no longer covered by warranty. There are a few solutions we could consider to lower the price of the repairs, however, if you’d like to hear them? We also have new models you may be interested in reviewing at this time. We could offer you a discount as a repeat customer.”

“At this time, our basic plan does not offer that feature. Our premium plan does. We offer a free trial, would you like to be upgraded for 14-days to check it out?”

“I sincerely apologize, it seems there was an error on our end. We’re sorry for that issue, and for taking up your time now. We appreciate you reporting this issue, and we’d like to offer you a…”

By showing your willingness to listen, to find a solution, and to offer your customers incentive to continue their relationship with your product or service, you will help to establish fans who will remain communicative with you – excited to communicate with you, even, because they know that you care about them, and you’ll do what it takes to help solve their problems.

You want to be the company receiving that feedback, right?

Mastering Tone with HelpSpot AI

At this point, you might be wondering how to ensure that your tone is consistently hitting the right notes. This is especially difficult when communicating digitally, where the lack of vocal intonation and body language can make it hard to convey tone accurately. That’s where HelpSpot AI, the new feature of HelpSpot 5.4, can make a real difference.
HelpSpot AI leverages the power of artificial intelligence to help you craft responses that resonate with your audience.

HelpSpot AI comes pre-configured with prompts that will modify the tone of what you’ve written to be more apologetic, more casual, or more formal – but you can go even further with custom AI prompts to let you define exactly the tone(s) that you want your customer support team to be able to have access to when they’re working on tickets.

Text Doesn’t Always Show Tone As Intended

Before we wrap up, it’s important to note that nowhere is tone more poorly communicated than through text.

That response might have sounded appropriate in-person, but in
text, it fails. “Customers tend to like on-time departures” strips out personalization. It portrays a basic fact, rather than communicating an understanding that this delay personally affected the traveler’s day, plans and productivity. Their personal situation matters. Service is about the person you’re communicating directly with – It’s not just about “customers,” from a detached point of view.

Emails, live chats and other digital written forms of communication are notorious for poorly showcasing emotion (not to mention we’ve been conditioned to think exclamation points might come across unprofessional, stripping out one more way to show glee, excitement or enthusiastic approval).

Emojis have crept into personal our lives, and GIFs have even provided laughs between co-workers, sharing mutual feelings or expressing frustration. They’re not quite ready for customer service
conversations however (that might move us back into that unprofessional or inappropriately cheerful category).

So instead, err on the side of over-communicating. If you can’t use your voice or facial expressions and body language to speak, use more words. Provide descriptive language that shows how you really feel, why this is important to you and how sorry or pleased you are to hear what you’ve been told by the customer. If you’re excited, use that exclamation point! If you’re upset, reiterate that feeling. Don’t leave them guessing as to whether you’re happy, apathetic or concerned about what they’ve just sent you. Come to think of it, this takes us back to our previous discussion regarding the differences between good (like good, average? Or good!), great, excellent and exceptional!

Tone can make or break a conversation. One employee’s negative tone can muddy your customer’s impression of the entire brand.

Use your customer service software to monitor your customer interactions. Provide feedback to each of your support colleagues, and don’t let poorly controlled tones disrupt your customer relationships!

Image of Ian Landsman
Ian Landsman
Ian founded HelpSpot in 2005 with the goal of making every interaction with your customers simple and efficient.
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