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Nailing the Nuances
of Tone

The key to customer support — and the reason we’ve focused so intently on empathy and communication strategies — is essentially to understand and be understood. Empathy helps you understand the feelings behind a customer’s words. Clear, compassionate communication techniques help you create a positive environment for an effective conversation.

Nailing the Nuances of Tone

People will forget what you said. They will forget what you did. But they will never forget how you made them feel.

Maya Angelou

But there’s more to clear communication than your feelings and words. Your tone of voice — whether spoken or written — can impact the success of every conversation you have with your customers.

You see, when we speak with someone, we listen to the words, sure. But without realizing it, we also listen to the tone of voice. Does it sound relaxed or stressed? Does it communicate trust, or frustration and anger? Even when we aren’t aware of it, we’re constantly assessing these elements as we interpret the words.

Remember the micro-messages we talked about in the last two chapters? Just as a person’s facial expressions and movements can help you understand what they’re feeling, their tone of voice can express unspoken thoughts behind their words.

To explain how this works, we’ll need to look at two studies done in the 1960s by Dr. Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. The first was conducted with Morton Wiener and entitled, “Decoding of inconsistent communications.”

In this study, to understand how attitudes and emotions are communicated, Mehrabian explored how the spoken word and facial expressions impacted a person’s ability to discern liking. He had test subjects listen to a recording of female voices repeating the word maybe in tones of voice that communicated liking, neutrality, or disliking. The subjects were then shown photographs of female faces with the same three emotions. Subjects were asked to guess the emotions in the recorded voice, the photos, and both in combination. Interestingly, the photos got more accurate responses by a ratio of 3:2.

That confirmed that facial expressions communicate more strongly than words. But Mehrabian wanted to go even further. In a second study conducted with Susan R. Ferris and entitled, “Inference of attitudes to nonverbal communication in two channels,” Mehrabian compared tones of voice with the spoken word.

British Library, Business and management: Albert Mehrabian

This time, he tested three groups of words that conveyed either positive connotations, neutrality, or negative connotations. There were three words in each group, and each word was spoken in a different tone of voice to the test subjects. While listening to the words, subjects were asked to focus on either the tone of voice, or the word, or both. They would then interpret the emotion behind those words. Based on their answers, it became clear that tone of voice communicates more emotion than the actual words we use.

In 1967, Mehrabian combined the results of these two studies to create a formula describing the importance of nonverbal clues in conversations:

Total liking = 7% verbal liking + 38% vocal liking + 55% facial liking

Today, we call this the 7-38-55% rule, and this is what it means:

  • First, facial micro-messages communicate more clearly than words or tone of voice. In fact, they’re responsible for fifty-five percent of the meaning we derive from a face-to-face conversation.
  • The second-most important communicator is tone of voice, expressing thirty-eight percent of a message’s true meaning.
  • Words express just seven percent of the message.

Now, how does this apply to customer support? This study revealed that most of communication occurs through visual and auditory channels. The words we use to communicate only share a small percentage of our true meanings. Clearly, we’re operating with a severe disadvantage in phone- or text-based support.

When we speak with a customer over the phone, we can access the second-most important communication element, tone of voice. But when we only support customer with text messages in live chat, email, or social media, we musts work doubly hard to express the right tone of voice, accurately interpret the tone of our customers' messages, and clearly communicate our own tone of voice.

It’s a challenge, sure, but not insurmountable. Which is why we’ve devoted this chapter to the nuances of your tone of voice — so you can communicate more fully with your customers, regardless of the channel you’re using.

Speaking: How to Capture the Right Tone of Voice

To understand the nuances of tone, you must pay attention not only to the words being shared but how they’re delivered. Bonnie Laurie, a communication coach and public speaker at ImprovForBusiness, teaches four ways to adapt your tone for effective communication in a spoken conversation.

Use the Right Kind of Tone

Just as Mehrabian discovered in his studies, your voice can convey a negative, neutral, and positive tone. You can control the tone by raising or lowering the pitch of your voice.

A neutral tone can communicate professionalism and support. But it won’t necessarily convey friendliness. If you want to sound happy and positive, try speaking in a slightly higher pitch.

But avoid speaking too loudly or sharply. That will usually be received as too aggressive. And avoid speaking too softy because that can communicate uncertainty or lack of knowledge.

Use the Right Amount of Tone

The ideal tone will vary slightly, putting more emphasis on some words and less on others. Why? Because without modulating your tone, you can sound disengaged and bored, as if you’re reading a script rather than talking human-to-human.

Try to adopt a neutral tone, then raise your pitch here and there to give important words or phrases more impact. Too much tone, and you can sound aggressive. Too little, and you can sound bored. Ideally, you’ll have enough tone changes in your voice to sound interested.

Set the Right Pace

Speaking slowly impacts empathy, communication, and trust, so take your time when speaking. Pause between sentences or ideas.

Add Meaning Through Changes in Your Tone

Typically, our voice rises or falls at the end of a sentence. Raising your voice indicates a question. If you want to make a statement, let your voice drop at the end of the statement. This helps you sound more knowledgeable, which can help your customers trust that you’re giving them the best support possible.

The Challenge of Text-Based Support

Mehrabian’s 7-38-55% rule verifies that words don’t tell us everything we need to know, but it doesn’t explain why. To understand why we struggle to communicate clearly with words alone, we need to look at studies in neurobiology.

Words with Multiple Meanings

Dr. Sophie Scott, a speech neurobiologist at University College London, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to take snapshots of the brain while people were engaging in a conversation. What she discovered was that the brain separates speech into words and “melody,” the changes in intonation that reveal mood, gender, and other unspoken messages. Words are sent to the left temporal lobe of the brain for processing. The melody is sent to the right side of the brain, the area where music is processed.

Essentially, words are processed for their literal meaning, while the tone is processed for the finer shades of meaning. Since words and their delivery both need to be understood, the brain can save time by devoting different parts of the brain to each.

Here’s why that’s so important. Eighty percent of words in the English language have more than one meaning. The brain must find the most accurate meaning as quickly as possible, so our conversations don’t come to a screeching halt as we puzzle out their meanings. By assigning different parts of the brain to different parts of the puzzle, we can arrive at a workable solution far more quickly than if only one part of the brain were involved.

Stressing Different Words

Inflection is another piece of the puzzle. Consider this sentence: Mary gave the book to John. Depending on which word is stressed, the meaning will completely change.

If the speaker stresses “Mary,” we understand that the important message is who gave the book to John. If “John” is stressed, we understand that the emphasis is on the recipient. Mary gave a book to someone, and that someone is John. Alternatively, if the word, “book,” is stressed, we understand that Mary could have given anything to John, but in this case, she gave him the book.

Different Cultures, Different Melody

Like music, speech follows a sequence of tones and harmonies, something Daniela Sammler, a neuropsychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, calls “musical grammar.” But she cautions, there are commonalities to this musical grammar that can cross cultural boundaries; there are also culturally learned differences that can make it hard to communicate clearly across cultures.

Max Planck Institute: The Music In Our Speech

That’s a challenge we face in all customer support channels. Unless we recognize the rhythms being employed by the speaker, we might miss some of their meaning. We can easily misunderstand a critical tone in the cadence of their message simply because they come from a different culture.

Of course, that’s just one more challenge to the already-difficult task of interpreting tone in text-based support. To fully unravel tone in text communications, let’s look at how we process text.

“Hearing” the Written Word

Despite the differences we’ve observed between spoken and text-based communications, the brain doesn’t see a big difference. When we read, our brains react as if we’re hearing the words aloud, producing an inner voice that allows us to “hear” the words as if they’re being spoken aloud — even if we’ve never heard the person speak before or, as in a novel, the character is fictional.

Marcela Perrone-Bertolotti, Jan Kujala, et al., JNeurosci: How Silent Is Silent Reading? Intracerebral Evidence for Top-Down Activation of Temporal Voice Areas during Reading

Christopher I. Petkov and Pascal Belin, Current Biology, ScienceDirect: Silent Reading: Does the Brain “Hear” Both Speech and Voices?

We even add inflection to the words, allowing us to hear whatever melody or intonation we imagine the words to carry.

Christian Jarrett, Research Digest, The British Psychological Society: You hear a voice in your head when you’re reading, right?

This may be one of the biggest reasons text-based customer support is so challenging. If we and our customers are each hearing an imagined tone when we read one another’s message, simply based on our culture or background, we could easily misunderstand the tone of what’s being said.

If the other person uses a word we interpret as negative, we’ll read it with a negative voice. If they describe something in a way that we interpret to be demeaning or rude, whether they meant to communicate that or not, it will be taken that way.

That’s probably why emojis have become so popular — even in business communications. They help us inject emotion or facial expressions into written messages to help clarify the meaning. With the right emoji, sarcasm and jokes create a laugh rather than offense or confusion.

Mastering Tone in Written Messages

The challenges surrounding text-based support are real, and considering the human neurology, it’s easy to understand why. The question now is whether it’s possible to master tone of voice in typed messages without resorting to emojis.

Fortunately, the answer is yes. So let’s look at some practical tips for keeping an upbeat, positive tone in written support messages — and making sure your customers understand every word of it.

Fill in the Melodic Gaps

Imagine if your boss emailed you, saying:

“I need you to stop by my office before you leave for the day.”

What would go through your mind? Unless you’ve got a longstanding, healthy relationship with your boss, you’d probably start wondering whether you’ll still have a job at the end of the day. That’s because an email conveys only half the message — the words. With no inflection and no tone of voice, you don’t have enough information to accurately decipher the message. If these same words were spoken over the phone, you’d hear a warm or cool tone of voice that would help you understand whether the meeting will be a friendly chat or a reprimand.

When we do customer support through live chat, email, or social media, we struggle with the same thing. Limited to words alone, we can easily misunderstand our customers — and they can just as easily misunderstand us.

It’s important to be clear about what your customer needs from you. So start there. If there’s anything in your customer’s message that’s unclear, ask.

Then, before you reply, review your own message to be sure it’s easy to understand. Look for the “other half of the message” that’s not conveyed with your words, the part of the message that would ordinarily be communicated by your tone of voice. If you’re using words or phrases that could be interpreted in multiple ways, double check that they make sense.

Then add a few words or some formatting to fill in the gap and clarify your meaning. Be aware, you don’t need to add a lot of extra words. Most customers want a quick, simple answer. You only need to make sure you aren’t confusing your customers — and sometimes it only takes one clarifying sentence to ensure you don’t.

Be Positive and Encouraging

You can follow your script to the letter and still come off as uncaring if your tone of voice communicates you don’t care about your customer’s situation. In text-based support, that means steering clear of negative words.

Researchers Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman have found that seeing the word, no, flash onto a screen for less than a second releases dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters that interrupt the normal functioning of the brain. Seeing this one little word impairs logic, reason, language processing, and communication. That’s a lot of damage from such a small word!

Andrew Newberg, M.D., and Mark Waldman, Psychology Today: The Most Dangerous Word in the World

Negativity, as it turns out, is toxic to your well-being. Every time you vocalize negative feelings and thoughts, stress chemicals are released in your own brain and the brain of your listener, creating anxiety and irritability that undermines cooperation and trust.

Now, realistically, you won’t be able to avoid using the word no in customer support. But fortunately, you can overcome the stress reaction of negative words by using positive words as well. Just keep in mind, positive words don’t have as powerful an effect on the brain as negative words do. You must use three times the positive words as negative to end the conversation with a neutral tone.

Interestingly, this gives text-based support an advantage over telephone support. You only need to focus on clear communication that uses positive words, and your tone automatically improves. The key is to foster a positive mindset.

Let’s say a customer complains about their internet coming and going. Your goal is to reframe their problem in a positive light, and to do that, you’ll use reflective listening and empathy. (As a bonus, these techniques will defuse high emotions while you’re at it.)

Typically, when we talk about reflective listening, we simply repeat back what someone has said, using their own words. In customer support, that would look like this:

“So it sounds like your internet is coming and going. Let me see if I can diagnose that.”

There’s nothing wrong with that response. It shows you’re listening. But it can also reinforce your customer’s frustration because you’re focusing with them on the negative situation.

Now look at the difference when you reframe their situation in a positive light:

“I understand completely. You want steady internet that you don’t have to think about. Let me see if I can diagnose why that’s not happening.”

Rather than restating the problem, you’re restating the desired outcome. You’re still communicating that you’ve heard the customer, but you’re taking it one step further. Not only do you make it clear that you understand the problem, you demonstrate that you understand what they want.

See the difference?

Once you’ve reframed the conversation, your challenge is to maintain positive energy, a task that could be harder than you imagine. You see, our natural speech patterns are littered with negative phrases and contradictions. These phrases are so engrained in the way we communicate that weeding them out could take some effort.

Buffer’s Chief Happiness Officer Carolyn Kopprasch talks about a “happiness hack” of removing two negative words from her vocabulary: actually and but.

She writes:

It almost doesn’t matter how good the news is; if it comes after “actually,” I feel like I was somehow wrong about something.

She uses the example:

Actually, you can do this under “Settings.”
Sure thing, you can do this under “Settings!” :)

Notice the second version is more casual, with an exclamation point and a smiling emoticon, but you feel the difference before you get to the end of the sentence. “Sure thing” is positive, whereas “Actually” makes it sound as if the customer should have figured it out on their own.

A similar shift occurs when the word but is removed. Here’s the example Kopprasch shares:

I really appreciate you writing in, but unfortunately we don’t have this feature available.

I really appreciate you writing in! Unfortunately, we don’t have this feature available.

Again, casualness aside, the response without but comes off as friendlier and more empathetic. Including “but” makes the first sentence sound as if you don’t care.

These are two examples of hidden negatives in our natural speech. As you can see, they don’t improve the message, and removing them entirely can help it. The challenge is finding other examples that keep our tone from being as positive as it should be.

Be Casual but Professional

Remember the old Mac commercials that pitted a slim, t-shirt-wearing Mac against a stuffy, suit-wearing PC? In every ad, Mac came off as the winner simply because he was real. There was no posturing or impressing. Just being himself, Mac came off as the one you could trust.

Researchers at Software Advice have found that customers have a similar bias when dealing with email support. In most cases, a casual tone builds trust — to a limit.

For example, in a question-and-answer situation or a discussion, sixty-six percent of respondents said they preferred a casual tone in email support. If a request was being denied, however, seventy-eight percent of those surveyed felt a casual tone would sound flippant and could negatively affect their satisfaction.

How casual can you go? According to Software Advice’s study, there’s a definite limit. For thirty-five percent of those surveyed, emoticons and slang were too informal. On the other hand, it’s hard to be too professional. Sixty-seven percent said they didn’t have any problems with a formal greeting and sign-off, courtesy titles, or not using contractions.

Here are three tips for walking the fine line between casual and formal interactions:

  1. In general, talk like a real person. Lean towards a casual rather than a formal conversation.
  2. If a request is made that you must deny, take on a more formal tone. Don’t try to be cute or casual here. It will likely offend.
  3. Use emoticons, exclamation points, and slang only if your company or industry is known for its informality, and only if your customer uses them. But don’t overdo it. Try to keep your conversion professional, even when using emoticons.

Use Mirroring to Personalize Support

Different customers have different expectations. Some are in a hurry. Others want to talk about every detail of their problem. Some expect you to speak formally. Others prefer a casual, friendly tone.

Here’s where mirroring matters. If your customer is using a casual tone of voice or typing with emoticons, you’re safe to respond in the same style. If a customer writes casually, they probably prefer you to respond in a casual tone.

Mirroring is the technique of reflecting the speech, behavior, and mannerisms of the person you’re talking to. On a subconscious level, this communicates that you’re in sync, that you understand one another.

APA Dictionary of Psychology: Mirroring

Mirroring can quickly build rapport and even help you empathize with your customers, as long as you don’t overdo it. If customers become aware of what you’re doing, it can feel rude, as if you’re making fun of them — or worse, that you’re trying to manipulate them.

When supporting your customers, the goal is to create a connection, a sense that you understand them. By adopting similar word choices and communication styles, you can help them feel at ease. That will help you quickly set a tone that they’re comfortable with.

So let your customers be your guide — up to a point.

A Quick Way to Find the Right Tone

We’ve looked at how you can manage tone in spoken and written support. By now, you may be thinking that tone, like introversion or extroversion, is something you’re just born with.

Fortunately, that’s not the case. Anyone can improve their tone of voice. Here are some simple exercises to do just that.

Step Away from the Script

So much of customer support is scripted, it’s easy to sound like you’re reading from a textbook rather than having a real conversation. There’s no faster way to tell your customer you don’t care about their problems.

To improve your tone, you’ve got to engage with the conversation. You may have to go off script a bit. And while that may seem scary and unpredictable, it will definitely help your customer satisfaction scores.

Be yourself. Be human. Be empathetic and respectful. Your tone will automatically adjust for the better.

Watch the Experts

If you want to improve any skill, you need to see it done right. Take time to listen to people who are recognized for their empathy. You may have friends who are gifted at talking with and influencing people. Public figures such as political leaders, talk show hosts, and teachers can often trace their success to their mastery of tone. These are the people you should be watching.

Set aside time to watch how these people interact with others. Pay attention to their tones of voice and their word choices. Look at how they handle negative comments or reframe conversations. Then, try using some of their best techniques in your support conversations.

Shift your Focus

Rather than focusing on your support stats, put your focus on creating an experience for your customers. Sometimes, when we’re too focused on the destination, we forget to enjoy the journey. If you engage with your customers, being fully present for them, you’ll enjoy the process. And those emotions come out in your tone. No effort required.

That’s it for the basics of unforgettable customer support. It all boils down to three core elements:

  1. A human-to-human interaction
  2. Empathy
  3. Your message, clearly communicated in a compassionate tone

Once you’ve mastered all three areas, your customers will experience the difference. Guaranteed. You’ll see more loyalty, fewer complaints, and better customer support ratings.

Of course, there are no such things as one hundred percent satisfaction, so in the next chapter, we’ll explore ways to reduce (and hopefully prevent) complaints.