Have you ever got off the phone with a customer and felt really confident about your call? You felt like you said all the right things at the right times and the customer really resonated with your advice.

But, when you see they've submitted feedback and you're hoping for some nice praise, you notice the NPS is a detractor. You're left shaking your head wondering what you did wrong and what more you could have done to make the experience any better for the customer.

When I worked as a customer service rep, I would see this all the time. A colleague would be surprised by the negative feedback they received even though they honestly felt like they were providing sound advice. Most of the time, these cases came down to the language the rep was using and how they were positioning their advice. Even though they were providing the right information, how they were phrasing it wasn't hitting home with the customer.

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In customer service, communication skills are key. You not only need to know your product and company inside and out, but you also need to be able to communicate all of your knowledge at both a master and beginner level. Using the right customer service language plays a crucial role in your ability to communicate this information in a way that's valuable to the customer you're working with.

In this post, we'll review some of the core fundamentals of customer service language, then we'll narrow our focus down to a few best practices you can follow to sound positive during any service interaction.

1. Focus on the Problem, Not the Person.

In customer service, you'll often hear managers tell their reps not to take things personally. They say that the customer's thoughts and opinions are directed towards the business and don't reflect who they are as a person.

It's great that managers will support their team like this. But, how we think and feel about the person we're speaking to influences the language that we use. If the customer just spent the last 10 minutes berating me with insults, then I might have a harder time projecting an optimistic outlook.

As customer service reps, we can't control how a customer will respond to us, and when a person is directing frustration towards you, it's natural to feel like you don't want to help. But, part of the job is separating the problem from the person, and prioritizing solutions over feelings. No matter how you feel about the customer at that moment, remember that you're only getting a snapshot of their brand experience, and how they're acting now may not reflect who they are as a person.

2. Speak Aloud While Typing.

According to UCLA Professor, Albert Mehrabian, roughly 60% of communication relies on body language and 30% of communication relies on your tone of voice. That means your vocabulary only accounts for a small fraction of your entire message.

When you're interacting with a customer on the phone or in person, you can leverage body language and tone to your advantage. However, on digital channels like email, live chat, and social media, it's harder to express what you want to say and how you want people to perceive it. Without tone or body language accompanying your message, it's easy for customers to misinterpret what you're trying to tell them.

One trick you can use is speaking aloud when you're writing an email or texting through live chat. Hearing your message while writing it will help you anticipate how customers will react to the information. It will also help you add more adjectives or descriptive phrasing to further clarify an issue or display more empathy. Since you can't physically show your concern, it's alright to slightly over-emphasize it when working through a non-verbal medium.

3. Create a List of Approved Soundbites.

Sometimes service reps clearly knock the ball out of the park. For example, you could have explained a really confusing troubleshooting step so that it made sense to a new user, or you might have used some unique empathy phrases that de-escalated a tense situation. Regardless of what it was, these interactions leave the customer feeling satisfied and delighted with their experience.

While these are good times to pat yourself on the back, your work isn't over just yet. You should file these cases into a database or help desk, so over time you can create a list of soundbites that you know are effective. That way, you'll use the same customer service language with every person you encounter.

4. Adopt an Attitude That Matches Your Brand's Tone.

How you deliver a "good" customer experience depends on the company you're working for and the customers you're working with. Customers will expect you to behave differently depending on the product they're buying and the reputation that your brand holds in its industry. Therefore, it's important to adopt behaviors and characteristics that emulate your brand's image as well as your customers' values.

For example, a Zappos customer service rep is going to be much more enthusiastic and energetic than an IBM service professional. That's because the Zappos employee is helping people buy shoes, an activity that should be fun, casual, and lighthearted. The IBM rep, on the other hand, is helping business owners navigate tricky technical issues that will impact how their business performs over time. While both companies provide the same quality of customer service, the IBM service agent may not be as outgoing as the Zappos rep, because they know their customers have different needs and expectations.

5. Avoid Pessimistic Customer Service Language.

The best customer service reps are relentless problem solvers. They aren't discouraged when roadblocks pop up and are determined to find solutions for their customers. Maintaining this type of tenacious attitude helps them avoid pessimistic or negative customer service language.

While there's no clear-cut list of words that you should or shouldn't use in customer service, there are some common phrases that are often overused or under-personalized. Below are a few examples as well as what you can do to spice these phrases up a bit for a better customer experience.

  • "I apologize for this inconvenience." — "Thank you for your understanding and my apologies for this unexpected inconvenience."
  • "I need to transfer your call to another line." — "I really want to make the best use of your time here, so do you mind if I transfer you to my colleague who specializes in these types of cases?"
  • "Can I follow up via email?" — "This looks like it's a little unique. Do you mind if I spend some more time digging into this on my end and I can follow up with you via email later today?"

6. Use 'You' Language When Writing Emails.

One of the best customer service tips I was given was to use "you" language when writing an email. "You" language means that you look for opportunities to directly address the customer with the noun, "you."

Here's an example. Instead of saying, "I think the best thing to do is to ask for a refund." Try writing, "My recommendation for you would be to ask our sales team to give you a refund."

This phrasing subtly places the focus on the customer instead of the service agent. Now the customer feels like they have the rep's full attention and are getting direct feedback on their inquiry.

7. Provide Time-Bound Solutions.

Time is a factor during every customer service case. Customers want to know when their problem will be solved and whether they'll have to change their approach to using your product moving forward. Time-based solutions provide an idea for when they can expect an answer to their problem and how long it will take before they can return to using your product.

If you don't know when a problem will be solved, but the customer is asking anyway, do your best to estimate a conservative resolution time. The good news here is you'll either exceed expectations tremendously, predict the timing accurately, or have enough time to reset expectations with the customer if necessary.

Now that we've covered the core fundamentals of customer service language, let's narrow our focus down to tips you can use to sounds more positive during a customer interaction.

Positive Language in Customer Service

1. Pay Attention to How You Position Advice or Information.

There are going to be times where you need to deliver bad news to a customer. While you should be honest and clear with your explanation, try not to exaggerate the issue — especially when there's a known solution to the problem.

The words that you choose will play an important role in how a customer perceives the severity of the situation. If your phrasing is vague and lacking specific details, the customer will likely think you're hiding something that you don't want them to hear. You should use descriptive language to ease this suspicion and provide a complete explanation of the problem.

For example, let's say a customer had a problem logging into their account. Instead of saying, "We fixed your account credentials, the problem should be resolved."

Try something more specific and detailed like,

"The problem was that your account password was expired. So, we reset the credentials in our system so you should be able to log in now using that same password."

This approach explains exactly what you did to fix the customer's problem and assures them that it won't be an issue again in the future.

2. Thank Customers Instead of Apologizing.

While you should always take ownership of a customer service case, you should avoid making apologies unless the situation calls for one. Although an apology shows your empathy for the situation, making one means that you're admitting a problem does exist and that the customer should be upset with the situation. Even though that might be the case for some interactions, most customers understand that minor mistakes will happen and will look past them so long as they're uncommon and you can make up for them when needed.

When a minor mistake does occur, try to thank the customer for their patience rather than apologizing. This will assure them that their current situation doesn't represent a typical customer experience and that you appreciate their understanding while you overcome the roadblock. This is an especially useful trick when there's a lot of friction between the customer and the company, and the service rep needs to align themselves properly to de-escalate the tension.

3. Make Suggestions, Not Demands.

Sometimes there's a lack of trust between the company and the customer. Due to past experiences with either the marketing, sales, or customer service teams, the customer doesn't trust that the business is giving them the best advice. So, these customers will rightfully push back until they're confident that what you're advising them to do will best serve their current needs.

If you try to push or persuade these customers to following your advice, they'll only become more suspicious of your intentions. Instead, make gentle suggestions that direct the customer to a solution rather than proposing an answer. If possible, try to make them feel like they discovered their own solution thanks to the helpful questions and resources you've provided.

4. Be Mindful of Your Body Language.

If you're working with a customer in-person, you should always be mindful of your body language. If it's negative, that's going to impact how a customer perceives your advice. Even though you may be truly interested in the customer's problem, poor body language can make all the difference in whether or not a customer feels comfortable working with you.

5. Demonstrate Competency and Confidence.

It's perfectly fine to be outgoing and enthusiastic on a customer service call. In fact, most customers will probably appreciate your jovial attitude and will enjoy working with you.

But, at the end of the day, you need to also display a level of competency and confidence whenever you're working with a customer. They need to trust that you can solve their problem and do it in a timely manner.

If your tone makes you sound unsure, or if you act too unprofessional, customers won't trust that your solution will work. Even if you give them the right answer, they might create a new support ticket just to verify that what you said was accurate. This extra step adds friction to the customer experience and hurts your entire team's relationship with that user.

Get more tips to improve team performance using these customer service training tools.

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Originally published Jul 2, 2020 8:00:00 AM, updated July 02 2020

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Customer Service & Support Training