Survey: The Best ‘Tone’ for Email Customer SupportJuly 11, 2014 by Jay Ivey
“Tone” is defined as “a quality, feeling or attitude expressed by the words that someone uses.” It’s the difference between “Oops, sorry!” and “We sincerely apologize.” When engaging customers over email, customer service and support (CSS) agents have to rely solely on word choice and punctuation to convey the appropriate attitude.
However, using the wrong tone at the wrong time can be off-putting or even downright infuriating to the person on the other end. Even worse, bungling the tone in a canned-response macro can duplicate this kind of negative experience for hundreds of other customers.
So how do CSS agents know when to use a friendly, casual tone and when to keep things serious and formal? To find out, Software Advice conducted an online survey to examine what kind of tone people prefer in various email-support situations. Here’s what we found.
Most Customers Generally Prefer a Casual Tone
First, we asked consumers whether they would generally like customer support agents to use more casual or formal language when corresponding over email.
Customer Preferences for CSS Agents’ Tone
While 51 percent didn’t indicate a preference, of those who did, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) said they preferred a casual tone, with 35 percent saying they preferred a formal tone in email support correspondence.
Surprisingly, this distribution was consistent across all age and gender demographics. This means, for instance, that customers between 18 and 24 years old were not especially likely to prefer that agents use casual language. Likewise, those over 55 were no more likely than younger customers to prefer that customer support agents use a formal tone over email.
So, generally speaking, most customers (regardless of age or gender) would like support agents to use natural, friendly language when answering online tickets. This may reflect how, when corresponding over email, formal language often sounds stiff and impersonal, which our previous research suggests can put people off.
Customers Are More Sensitive to Tone When Frustrated
Respondents’ general preference for a casual tone suggests that CSS representatives may want to consider defaulting to a friendly, conversational tone when developing macros and responding to neutral situations. However, anyone who’s spent a lot of time answering tickets knows that every ticket is different. What works in one situation may backfire in another.
To get a sense of how consumers’ tonal preferences might vary in different email support situations, we asked for responses to the following two scenarios:
Scenario 1: A customer service agent uses an overly casual tone (e.g., slang or emoticons) while denying you a request over email.
Scenario 2: A customer service agent uses an overly formal tone (e.g., “Sir” or “Madam”) while granting you a request over email.
The first thing that stands out about the responses to these situations is that the vast majority (78 percent) said agents’ using a casual tone when denying a request would have at least some negative impact on their customer satisfaction. Conversely, only 35 percent said they would be bothered if a support agent used an overly formal tone when granting a request.
Impact of Support Agent’s Tone on Customer Satisfaction
This discrepancy suggests that customers who are in a frustrating situation are likely to be much more sensitive to tone, especially compared to customers who are getting what they want. Accordingly, agents should always consider the customer’s emotional state, and be especially mindful of their language if there’s a chance the customer is feeling anger, confusion or other negative emotions.
To see just how much using an overly casual or formal tone might impact customer satisfaction in different situations, we broke down the data further, excluding those who said that tone would not affect their reaction:
Degree to Which Support Agent’s Tone Impacts Customer Satisfaction
A significant majority (78 percent) responding to the first scenario said that they would be at least “moderately less satisfied” if a customer service agent used casual language when denying them a request—including a total of 50 percent who said they would be “much less satisfied.”
Although significantly fewer said they would care if a customer support agent used an overly formal tone while granting them a request, a surprising number of those who did care said they cared a lot, with over half (56 percent) saying they’d be “much less satisfied.”
To sum it up: Even though most users generally prefer a relaxed, human tone, many may interpret a casual attitude in a touchy situation as being flippant or dismissive. Conversely, certain users may be turned off by stiff, impersonal language even when they’re hearing good news. This reflects just how important it is for CSS agents to carefully tailor their language depending on the context, especially when developing canned-response macros for common situations.
Many Find Emoticons, Colloquialisms Inappropriate
It’s clear that customers can have strong negative reactions when representatives use the wrong tone at the wrong time, and that they respond differently to the same register of diction depending on the circumstances. But are there any particular casual or formal ways of writing that people almost always find off-putting in a customer service scenario?
To find out, we first asked users to identify which of the following elements they would consider inappropriately casual in an email from a customer service agent:
Elements Customers Find Too Casual for Support Emails
Interestingly, nearly half (49 percent) didn’t think any of the listed options were inherently too casual. This suggests that many people aren’t opposed to even extremely informal elements—so long as they aren’t used in an inappropriate context.
However, a significant number of respondents (35 percent) did find the use of emoticons, such as smiley faces, to be too informal for email customer support, and 26 percent said the same about colloquial words such as “awesome” or “cool.” Agents should, therefore, be particularly careful about using these elements, especially in sensitive situations.
Next, we asked users to identify specific elements they might consider stuffily formal in a customer service email:
Elements Customers Found Too Formal for Support Emails
In response, an even higher percentage (67 percent) said they didn’t find any of the given options to be intrinsically too formal, and fewer than 20 percent singled out any particular element.
It’s surprising to see that these specific formal speech elements were less likely to bother people than casual elements. This indicates that while people generally prefer customer service agents to use casual language over formal in email, agents using casual language may also run a greater risk of saying something that the customer finds inappropriate.
With most people generally preferring a casual tone, CSS agents may want to consider using pleasant, informal language when answering tickets or writing macros to address neutral situations. When responding to an informational query, for example, you might end with a phrase such as “Hope that helped!”
However, in more stressful circumstances, agents should be especially conscious of how the customer may be feeling, and consider adopting a more reserved, straightforward tone in order to avoid sounding unconcerned or insulting. In particular, they should be careful about potential triggers such as emoticons or colloquialisms.
Learning what kind of language to use in what context is a skill that CSS representatives hone over years of experience. In the meantime, customer service departments should invest in training agents on the nuances using language resources (see examples here and here), and should be especially mindful of their diction when developing macros that address different situations.
To further discuss this report, or obtain access to any of the charts above, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.