How to Develop a Customer Service Voice and Tone Guide

You can't argue about style. But as a company, it does pay to commit to one. This ensures a cohesive brand experience for your customers and clarity for your team.

For a service department, this is mostly about defining the voice used in customer communication.

We all have our own background stories. Some people in your team may have previously worked at Disneyland, while others may have worked in the insurance or funeral industries. By defining your customer service voice, you harmonize the communication experience for your customers despite these individual differences.

But you don't want to define your voice so tightly that it limits your team from reacting appropriately to the wide range of service scenarios that they might run into. That is where tone comes into play.

Tone and voice are often used interchangeably, but have two different meanings, as best explained in Mailchimp 's style guide:

There’s a difference between voice and tone. Look at it this way: You have the same voice all the time, but your tone changes. You might speak in one tone to your closest friends and family, and a different tone with your boss.

Both are important. You want a consistent voice in your customer service communication that aligns with your brand identity and target audience. At the same time, you want the tone of your support reps to align with the topics and moods that your customers bring to them.

Customer service voice

Many companies have a unique brand voice , yet sound bland and monotone in their customer interactions. Dry and formal language is favored over the friendly language from marketing materials in a bid to sound “professional”.

To give a definition, a brand voice embodies the words and language you use to communicate your values and personality to your customers.

This is usually determined by the type of industry you’re in and the products you’re offering. For example:

  • In the legal industry, clients will respond best to a professional and authoritative voice.
  • In software services, you’ll probably aim for a friendly and informative voice.
  • In gaming or other types of entertainment, an entertaining and playful voice makes sense.

When customers contact you, they expect consistency across every interaction and touchpoint, regardless of the department they’re contacting. If your marketing materials make your product sound hip and cool, but your customer service conversations sound formal and stiff, the latter are breaking the brand experience.

A consistent voice ensures your customers receive the same service across all interactions and touch points. Your customer service voice should therefore reflect your public persona.

The best way to identify your customer service voice is to imagine your brand as a person. That person will always talk with the same voice whether they’re posting on social media or talking to a customer through live chat .

Customer voice style guide

After you’ve established your customer service voice, the next step is to create a voice style guide for your team.

A voice style guide makes sure your agents are on the same page when speaking to customers. It also gives your agents the confidence they’re communicating in the right way.

Here’s where your customer voice style guide can be used:

Canned macros and templates. When done right, these are a great time-saver for agents because they don’t have to freehand responses. All canned messages should be composed in the same customer service voice.

Userlike chat macro, a canned message feature, in action.
Userlike’s chat macros

Freehand responses. Mostly, agents have to come up with their own responses. While everyone will inject their own personality, they style shouldn’t deviate too much from your defined customer service voice.

Knowledge base content. Well-written knowledge base articles are your first line of defense against repetitive customer questions.

Your customer service team will likely have an input in crafting knowledge base articles, but this can lead to inconsistencies as each author adds their own style.

A style guide ensures that articles written by different authors stay true to your customer service voice.

Building a voice style guide

The first step to creating a voice style guide is to gather all customer-facing material: emails, chat transcripts, website content, blog content.

Look for specific phrases or words repeated across content to include in your style guide and look out for inconsistencies. The goal here is to find the sweet spot between the language used to market products and the one used to assist customers.

Example of an error message on the Mailchimp website.
Mailchimp error message: Distilled

The language used in marketing materials may not always be appropriate for dealing with customers, so it’s important to outline the do’s and don'ts of tone and language.

You don’t need to cram your style guide with every single phrase or word you might use in customer correspondence, but the following elements are useful to include:

Voice. As many of your agents will come from different industries, they may be communicating in their own style. To make sure they’re all on the same page, clearly define your customer service voice:

We want to educate people without patronizing or confusing them. Using offbeat humor and a conversational voice, we play with language to bring joy to their work. We prefer the subtle over the noisy, the wry over the farcical. We don't take ourselves too seriously.

Mailchimp Content Style Guide

If composing a defining voice statement is challenging, it can be helpful to complete a ‘We’re This, Not That’ exercise:

  • “We’re plain-talking, but not condescending”.
  • “We’re intelligent, but not academic”.
  • “We’re playful, but not cheeky”.

Company terminology. You likely have your own terminology for product or company-related things. While it makes sense to not let these terms deviate too much from what regular people call them, it's also a good idea to be consistent in how you use them. Starbucks is a well-known example here, with their Short, Tall, Grande and Venti cup sizes. Employees train customers in using the right terminology. When a customer says they want a small cappuccino, they subtly correct them with a "One short cappuccino coming right up."

Customer service phrases. Repeatable customer service phrases can help ensure that an agent is never lost for words. They also bring consistency into customer interactions. Which phrases you use will depend on your customer service voice, but hereʼs a good place to start: Happy to Help! Plus 25 Other Customer Service Phrases That Work Like Magic

Softening words (hedges). Even when providing instructions, the imperative can sound too direct and most customers would bristle at the command “restart the computer”.

However, words such as “could” and “please” soften the impact: Could you try starting the computer again, please ?”

Hedging (the use of vague or cautious language) can be achieved by including modal verbs such as “could”, “would” or “might”. Adjectives such as “possible”, “likely” or “probable" can also help soften a bad message.

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Appropriate register. In some cultures, itʼs not appropriate to be too familiar with customers. For example, in Germany, the tendency is towards formality and adopting a familiar, first-name approach can come across as discourteous.

Our blog post on cultural diversity will help you avoid faux-pas.

Negative phrases. Common words or phrases which may seem harmless can evoke negative connotations in your customers. A handful of positive alternatives can help ensure that your agents are never lost for words.

Appropriate emoji use. Emojis can help convey tone, but they can be open to misinterpretation, especially because they’re rendered differently on phones and hold different meanings depending on where you live in the world.

Various emoji types.
Smiling emoji on different platforms: GroupLens

Check out our recommendations for using emoji appropriately . The rule of thumb is use emoji sparingly and only if your customer is using them. But if you’re delivering bad news, forgo them altogether.

If youʼre looking for inspiration for your voice style guide, you won’t go far wrong by taking a leaf out of Monzo’s book . This comprehensive style guide runs the gamut of do’s and dont’s and includes practical examples.

Tone down your personality

If your voice is your personality, then your tone is the degree to which you display it, as described by Wordtree .

You might have an extroverted, upbeat personality. But in a professional setting, you’re going to be a more polite, reserved version of yourself than in social settings.

Tone works the same way in customer service. While customers largely prefer a casual tone , this preference shifts when you’re denying a request or dealing with a complaint.

Addressing an already upset customer in an upbeat or casual tone will likely upset even more and give the impression that you don’t care about their issue.

On the other hand, if a customer compliments you on a blog post, you should aim for a warm and friendly tone. To reply with a standard “thanks for your suggestion” would dilute the customer’s enthusiasm and leave them wondering why they bothered.

Help Scout's sliding spectrum of tone.
Sliding Spectrum of Tone: Help Scout

Help Scout categorizes these responses into social and action responses:

  • Social responses can afford to be more conversational. Use cases: compliments, product suggestions.
  • Action responses should be straightforward and leave no room for confusion. Use cases: complaints, instructions, problem-solving.

For the most part, customer service agents will use their own judgment and use the appropriate one for the situation and customer. However, when an agent switches from one industry to another, you may need to correct them on their style to avoid using an overly formal tone.

At a luxury department store, for example, the tone used with customers errs towards “posh” and Latinate language. But this tone will miss the mark with customers at gaming companies where humor and playfulness are the norm.

Inside Harrod's, a luxury warehouse in London.
Harrod’s: VT Vogue

Your tone will also vary according to the communication channel. Live chat , WhatsApp and SMS invite a more casual tone because communication is largely informal on these channels. Phone and, to a certain extent, email may require you to adopt a more formal tone.

If in doubt, you won’t go far wrong if you mirror your customer’s tone. Except, of course, if they’re angry . For those times, aim for a calm and neutral tone.

Whichever tone is used, empathy/compassion , active listening, politeness and patience go a long way.