Service & Experience with J. N. Halm: Tone it well


voice matters in the customer’s experience

Our words matter. But our tone matters—many times, even more. This is why an “I love you” can very much sound like an “I can’t stand you.” This is also why an “All is well with me” can actually say “I am not alright today”. This is also why you might hear “Don’t worry. I’ll get back to you soon” but what you really hear is “Worry. I’m not getting back to you anytime soon”. It is all in the tone. When the words we say are not said with the right tone of voice, the meaning of the words totally changes.

Simply defined as the way words are verbalised, the tone of voice has been found to be an integral part of verbal communication. As seen from the opening paragraph, the wrong tone of voice can lead to a misinterpretation of one’s words. In other words, the tone conveys meaning. It tells the listener something. However, the tone of voice also does something else. It clarifies meaning. When something is said, the listener resorts to the tone of voice used to clarify if what is being heard is actually true.

It is one thing to use the wrong tone of voice when at home. It is another thing to use the wrong tone when talking to a total stranger. It is, however, a totally different ballgame when it comes to dealing with those who are bringing you money, i.e. your customers. In that situation, the wrong tone of voice could result in, not only a loss of the customer’s business but even, a loss of reputation of the business.

For one thing, it has been proven that a friendly tone of voice helps listeners form a very good impression of the speaker. The importance of using the right tone when dealing with customers was brought to the fore in a study whose results were published in the August 2002 edition of Surgery journal. According to the study, when conversations between surgeons and patients were analysed, it came to light that the tone of voice of the surgeon was a good indication as to whether that surgeon would later be sued for malpractice by the patient or not. That publication was aptly captioned, “Surgeons’ Tone of Voice: A Clue to Malpractice History”.

The tone of voice has been found to be so powerful that even bad news delivered with the right tone of voice is found to be better received than good news delivered in a wrong tone. Customers who are given disappointing news in a warm, supportive tone of voice, are found to walk away from the experience feeling positive. The negative news was overridden by the positive tone. In the same vein it has been found that when customers receive positive news in a cold and distant tone of voice, they walk away in a not-too-happy mood. The positive news gets overridden by the negative tone. That is the power of the tone of voice.

There are other studies which seem to suggest that when criticism is offered in a polite tone of voice, the critic is increasingly perceived as a polite individual. In the reverse, a critic who used an impolite tone of voice was seen as just being rude. In other words, although what the one was saying was important, the way the one was saying it also mattered.

Another study whose results were published in a December 2003 edition of the Journal of Language and Social Psychology found that when it came to communicating politeness, the tone of voice was very important. Titled “On How Things Are Said—Voice Tone, Voice Intensity, Verbal Content, and Perceptions of Politeness”, the study was undertaken by two researchers from Harvard University.

In my experience, the number one cause of poor tone used by customer-handling employees is a momentary loss of concentration. When the person is fully in character, the one will not use certain tones when dealing with customers. It is when the one allows the situation to get to him or her that disaster is bound to happen. A loss of concentration while playing a role can lead to disastrous consequences. Just as important sports games can easily be lost when a player loses concentration, even if for just a couple of seconds, so it is with playing the role of a customer service professional. Immediately, the individual loses concentration, the one gets out of character—and the results will not be pleasant.

It is very important for those whose job involves dealing with customers on a regular basis to understand that they do not really know how they send like. It is a fact that the way we sound in our own heads is actually not the exact way we sound to those hearing us. This is why sometimes when people are accused of using the wrong tone of voice, they become defensive. The one accused of using the wrong argues against that assertion because in the one’s ears, that tone did not sound wrong.

The tendency not to hear the actual quality of one’s voice also accounts for why in public speaking training, people are advised to record their speeches and play it back. That activity gives one a good sense of the way the one sounds to others. On many occasions, when people hear what they actually sound like, it comes as a surprise to them. For many, their voices do not sound as great as they had always believed.

It might therefore not be a bad idea to use that strategy to train front line professionals as well. You might now understand why many organisations including call centres tend to record conversations with customers to use for training purposes.  As a matter of fact, the above-named study published in the Surgery journal proposed exactly that. The researchers were of the view that if the surgeons heard a replay of their voices, it would be easier to give them the necessary coaching to ensure that they communicate with more empathy and care.

Besides the use of recording of the voice to address any challenges with the tone of voice, it also helps to have one’s colleagues calling the one to attention whenever the one uses the wrong tone of voice. If you are someone who has been accused of not speaking in the right tone of voice to customers, it does no harm if you can get your colleagues to help you out. A little humility can go a long way in helping one become better at what the one does.

The issue with tone of voice is that it gives a very good indication of the mood of the speaker. The tone of voice betrays the true internal state of the speaker. This is why listeners are able to pick up on the hidden meanings behind what the one is saying. In many cases, the tone is a better way to evaluate the true feelings of the speaker than just the words being spoken. Customers know this and will therefore react to the tone used by the customer-facing professional, rather than to just the words being spoken.

The importance of the tone of voice in face-to-face interactions is one thing. However, this importance goes up a notch when the conversation is over the phone. Without the speaker’s body language to aid in the interpretation of what is being said, all the importance shifts to the tone of voice. On the phone, the individual is only represented by the one’s voice, which is the why the tone assumes an added importance.

This simply means that customer service employees must be extra careful when dealing with customers over the phone. There are some things that one can say and get away with them just because the one’s body language would give an indication that the one meant something else. However, because there is no such luxury over the phone, the word and tone used in a phone conversation with customers must be carefully thought about.

Communication experts also tell us that even with written communication, there is a tone of voice. Brands can also communicate in writing using the right or wrong tone. When it comes to written communication, the tone is created by the words and phrases used.  The way sentences are structured can make a particular piece of communication assume a friendly tone or a hostile tone. There are certain words that would sound too officious in certain written documents and this alone can put some people off.

From the ongoing, it is clear that the tone of voice used in communication, whether verbal or written, plays a very important role in the way the communication impacts listeners. It has been argued that some who aspired to political office, won the hearts of the electorate because of the tone of voice they adopted while on the campaign trail. We are told of Chief Executives that commanded respect among colleagues and subordinates just because of the tone of voice they communicated in. When it comes to the customer’s experience therefore, what those at the frontline say matters but how they say what they say matters even more.

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