“I’m going to put you on hold for just a second.”; “I think you misunderstood me just now — what I actually said was…”; “I can understand your frustration, but…”
The language we use when interacting with customers matters. The sentences above are examples of a frustrating interaction for a customer who is seeking help, due to the negative connotation brought about by tone and wording. Although the problem could still be resolved, the customers who heard those statements received a negative customer experience, and unfortunately that’s what they’ll remember when the interaction is over.
Whether conversing with consumers who’ve purchased a product for personal use (B2C) or the representative of a company that uses a product for business (B2B), the words we use matter, as do tone and context. In a world where the ability to deliver a great customer experience can make all the difference, it pays to watch your language.
Using the Right Tone
Using the right tone is one of the keys to communicating with customers effectively. In some situations, it makes sense to take an authoritative tone, for example when providing a technical answer about software functions to a B2B customer. In that scenario, it’s important for agents to convey that they know what they’re talking about. Other scenarios call for a more empathetic tone, such as assisting a customer who is frustrated with a malfunctioning product.
How and when we accentuate words and phrases also conveys a message. Customer service expert Shep Hyken illustrated this in a recent column, pointing out the vastly different subtexts that common responses to customers convey. In a café, servers often respond to a customer’s thank you with “No problem,” or “My pleasure.” They may then ask a customer “What else can I get for you?” or “How is everything?”.
All of these phrases are very common in the service industry, but Hyken points out that a sincere “My pleasure” is the preferable phrase in response to customer thanks because it more effectively communicates that you value the customer. Similarly, a caring “What else can I get for you?” conveys a willingness to provide additional service in a way that “How is everything?” can’t replicate. Both are great examples of why tone matters in customer communication.
Choosing the Right Words
The ability to find the right words is just as important for a customer service agent as it is for a writer. Take our opening example: “I’m going to put you on hold for just a second…” Even though both parties know “just a second” is a figure of speech, it sets an unrealistic expectation. A better approach is to ask customers if you can put them on hold and provide a realistic timeframe for when you’ll be back.
Also consider the word “but” as used in the following sentence: “I can understand your frustration, but…” In that context, the word “but” negates everything that was said before it. More effective phrasing would be an acknowledgment of the customer’s frustration and an apology: “I can understand your frustration and I’m very sorry you experienced that”. With this response, the customer will feel heard and may be more receptive to discussing solutions.
Another thing to keep in mind when speaking with customers is to choose words that don’t sound defensive or deflective. Instead of saying, “You misunderstood me,” an agent could reply, “Sorry about the misunderstanding, what I meant to say was…” to put the focus back on the customer issue and avoid escalating the situation. Whatever language is chosen, keeping the conversation centered on the customer and resolving their problem should remain the top priority for all customer support interactions.
Understanding Customer Sentiment
Think about how you’d start a conversation with a customer who is generally satisfied with your product versus how you’d begin a discussion with an irate customer who had talked to half a dozen support personnel before you were called in to defuse the situation. The approach should be drastically different. In the first instance, you can be direct in solving the problem at hand, whereas communicating with the irate customer would require a more delicate approach to resolve the immediate problem and salvage the relationship.
Technology can help by providing assistance with understanding these different customer moods and how to react. Customer intelligence tools like sentiment analysis, found in leading customer success software solutions, can provide companies with an edge in these important conversations. Automatic text analysis identifies how customers feel based on their email or chat responses, enabling agents to prioritize how they approach interactions and provide a more impactful and personalized response.
This type of natural language processing (NLP) can reliably identify customers who are feeling “satisfied” or “frustrated” in real time. This is powerful information for customer support teams to gain the insight they need to approach individual customers in an effective way. In the right support solution, it can also be one of many indicators in measuring overall customer health. Pairing customer sentiment with agent ratings and ticket volume can be a great way to identify and assess potential at-risk customers and establish a plan for proactive customer support (aka customer success).
The Bottom Line on Communicating Effectively
When choosing the right words in a support scenario, it’s important to remember that customers seeking help aren’t always looking for a direct line to a solution or additional information. Sometimes how their issue is resolved can be more important than actually fixing the problem because it indicates more broadly how much a company cares about their business. In B2B relationships, that goes for the people who contact customer support for assistance as well as the companies they represent.
Agents who use the right tone and choose their words carefully send a positive signal to customers that they are respected and valued. Communicating effectively requires people skills, but it’s also helpful for agents to have the right tools, including customer success software with sentiment analysis, that allows them to understand customer needs immediately, find answers quickly and efficiently, and communicate effectively with every customer. In B2B support, agents also need to understand the health of the overall B2B relationship to respond appropriately.
With these essential elements in place, support agents can tailor their language to each customer’s unique situation and deliver a world-class customer experience every time. Mastering communication through language isn’t easy, but excelling in this area can provide businesses with the subtle advantage they need to keep customers happy and out of the grasp of competitors.