Over the past few years, I’ve worked with dozens of our new clients at FCR to help them design a quality process for the customer service team that drives the sort of customer experience they want to deliver. Of the many different topics we discuss in those conversations, one of my favorites is asking them to talk about the voice and style we should use when communicating with their customers.
Most clients respond with a handful of words and phrases to summarize this voice and style. They typically say some combination of the following:
- We’re upbeat and friendly.
- We apologize profusely when things don’t go right or we don’t apologize at all unless it was absolutely our fault.
- We talk to customers like they’re a friend of a friend. It’s familiar but still professional.
- If a customer has a problem, we go above and beyond to make it right.
There’s more we could add to this list but that’s how most of these discussions go.
And then there are the handful of clients that have a detailed style guide that was produced by their marketing department. These guides cover pretty much every communication scenario you could possibly think of.
A quick Google search led me to the Mailchimp Content Style Guide which covers voice and tone, punctuation (serial comma, capitalization, etc), key words and phrases to avoid and their alternatives, and a whole lot more. As I read through this and other guides, I’m not sure how someone even arrives at the understanding of what to put in such a guide. They’re so comprehensive.
Recently a client asked if we could help them create a voice and style guide because they didn’t have one. I’ve had this on my list of things to do and thought it might be fitting to share some of my initial thoughts in this article. The goal here is to understand what belongs in a voice and style guide and explore how this applies to customer service. Let’s address a few key questions first.
Who’s responsible for establishing the communication style for an organization?
In most organizations, the marketing department establishes voice and style, not the customer service group. But the smaller and/or newer the company is, the less likely it is to have someone dedicated solely to marketing. It’s more likely that people are wearing multiple hats and the customer service team might be instrumental in initially setting up guidelines for customer-facing communication.
Why is a voice and style guide important?
The most important concept is consistency. It’s about making all communication from your company to customers consistent with your brand regardless of which department is communicating. This includes content on your website, office decor, SWAG, signage, slide decks, and all outbound communications from groups like sales, marketing, IT, and customer service. According to ClearVoice: “Your brand should build awareness and develop trust and loyalty with customers” and this is most effectively accomplished with consistency across the board.
Does this really apply to customer service and how much?
Absolutely! Let’s look at how and where the voice and style guide should be used in customer service.
- Pre-written macros and templates
We already know that when done right, macros save time so agents don’t have to freehand every customer response every time. They also ensure that key information is communicated consistently. These are customer facing communications and should be written in the company’s voice and style.
- Knowledge base content
This information should also be consistent and on brand. Ideally the customer service team plays a key role in identifying the gaps in knowledge and helping keep the knowledge base current.
- Speaking the language
Whether it’s verbal or written communication the customer service team should be fluent in the voice and style of the company however simple or complex it may be. In this case, I’m thinking of those things that should or shouldn’t be said. For example, at a previous job we never said the word “outage” but instead used “service impairment.” This can be reinforced as part of the quality assurance process.
One note here is that I’ve seen many customer support organizations empower some of their best writers or hire writers to produce templates and knowledge base content that’s consistent with the company’s voice and style. This can be a great career path and allow you to amplify the number of customers some of your best agents reach. While it’s important that everyone in customer service actively suggest content, I recommend that a smaller group approve content and put it into production.
What are the essentials for a customer service voice and style guide?
We’ve established that a voice and style guide is important and applies to the customer service team and that customer service might have significant input in the process. As I’m thinking through the essentials, here’s a not-too-long list of what I’d include in the guide.
- Proper formatting and spelling of the company name
Is it Company Name, CompanyName, companyname, or Companyname? Pick one and stick with it.
- What do you call your customers?
Names matter and speak to how you view and value your customers. Do you call them members, users, etc? There’s nothing wrong with calling them customer but here are a few ideas to get you thinking.
- Phrases to avoid and their alternatives
I affectionately refer to these as “stop words” and you might include words like can’t, nope, won’t, unfortunately, and policy — words that put up a barrier between you and the customer. There might be some industry-specific language you want to be careful with as well like my earlier example about outages. Be sure to share words and phrases to use in their place.
- Describing people
As I continue to reference MailChimp’s Style Guide, I appreciate their sensitivity around words that are used to describe people’s age, race, gender, sexuality, and disabilities. Some of this seems like common sense but it’s not always common and may be important to spell out.
- Using the customer’s name
It’s a great idea to greet customers by name and use names naturally during interactions but this can also backfire if done incorrectly. In his new book, Customer Service Tip of the Week, Jeff Toister recommends, “In most situations, first names are perfectly acceptable and increasingly preferred by customers.” He goes on to say, “When in doubt, use their last name or ask which they prefer.”
- Voice and tone
I alluded to this earlier in the post. It’s possible to talk at extreme length about voice and tone but I recommend keeping it simple. For support teams, I find it effective to come up with a handful of words or phrases that describe how you talk with customers. Here’s an example of where I usually begin when working with clients:
- Professional but personable – Business casual, not uptight, always respectful. Contractions (you’re, we’ll, they’re, etc) are encouraged.
- Positive, fun, and upbeat – Phrases like “absolutely” and “here’s what I CAN do for you.” We avoid words like “unfortunately,” “can’t,” and “won’t.”
- Partnering – Our goal is to work with customers to find solutions without talking down to them or sounding detached, scripted, or robotic.
- Empathetic – We care about the emotional state of the customer and the problem they are encountering. We aim to make a human connection with each customer.
- Grammar and punctuation
We can go into extensive detail here. I recommend at minimum addressing the serial comma, double or single spacing before a new sentence, the use of emojis, and exclamation points. While it may be more about grammar than style, it’s wise to also address the use of apostrophes and differentiate between your and you’re, to and too, and they, their, and they’re. While you’re at it, talk about its and it’s. Those are confusing for some people but can reflect poorly on a brand when customers see those words used incorrectly.
I have one final thought on this topic. You might ask how the unique personality of your individual agents is able to shine through when they’re bound to a style guide. The reality is that it’s still people that make the meaningful connection with the customer, it’s people who choose that positive and upbeat attitude, and it’s people who work to find just the right solution to solve the customer’s problem. The style guide above all helps to create a consistent approach to customer service that aligns with your brand and ideally all other customer-facing communication in your organization. But remember that it’s the people who execute and add their own personal touch.
As I said earlier, I’m preparing to work with some of our clients to help them establish a voice and style guide primarily for customer service. As you read this article, let me know if there are any essentials I should consider or include.