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Understanding Tone & Voice Basics

guitar tone tuner
Source: Canva

If you’ve ever seen the Three Men and a Baby movie, then you might remember the scene where Tom Selleck is lulling the little baby to sleep while reading a sports article about a bloodied and bruised boxing champ. Who would read that to a baby? Well, as he points out, “It doesn’t matter what I read. It’s the tone you use.”

Tone of voice very obviously tells the tale of your mood. You can hear joy as clearly as you can hear anger. It is believed that changes in expression impact us on a subliminal level. We pick up on different characteristics in a speaker’s voice, and those little cues help us interpret what may be going on beneath the surface.

So, as a customer service representative, what do you do when you’re feeling under the weather or having a bad day? You fix it with a smile. Source: The importance of tone of voice in customer service

That simple? Actually, it’s a great start, but you need to know much more and hone some soft skills to be able to provide outstanding customer service if you want to pursue a prosperous long-term career in the online industry.

That’s why in these initial lessons you’ll learn some of the psychology and behaviours required for working in customer service before we get on with the more practical step-by-step guides and tools to use. We’re going to deal with tone and voice basics first.

So, how should a Customer Service Representative (CSR) write and speak to customers? Any way they like? Or with a formal tone? Or casually? Then, how to know what’s casual and what’s too casual?

What is tone at all and why does it matter? How does it differ from voice?

These and many more questions related to the topic will be answered in the lesson in front of you. Eager to find out? Let’s start with defining the key terms then.

What’s the Difference Between Voice and Tone?

In their style guide, email marketing provider MailChimp makes a clear distinction between tone and voice.

“What’s the difference between voice and tone? Think of it this way: You have the same voice all the time, but your tone changes. You might use one tone when you’re out to dinner with your closest friends, and a different tone when you’re in a meeting with your boss.

Your tone also changes depending on the emotional state of the person you’re addressing. You wouldn’t want to use the same tone of voice with someone who’s scared or upset as you would with someone who’s laughing.“

Thus, the tone of voice you’re using has a lot to do with attitude. It reflects your emotional state, which is expressed by the words you’re using. Depending on the situation, your tone can and should be:

  • Humorous and entertaining
  • Empathic and understanding
  • Friendly and conversational
  • Formal but not distant
  • Smart and casual
  • Informal but not tasteless
  • Fun but not silly
  • Confident but not cocky
  • Smart but not stodgy
  • Informal but not sloppy
  • Helpful but not overbearing
  • Expert but not bossy
  • Weird but not inappropriate

One the other hand, voice refers to the overall personality you’re conveying. It’s more of an indication of your character rather than your emotions.

Here’s an example: Think about how a finance firm and a social media company would market themselves. Finance firms tend to be very businesslike, whereas social media companies are more upbeat and energetic. Source: Using the right tone of voice to enhance customer service

Furthermore, tone of voice encompasses not only the words you choose, but their orderrhythm and pace. It’s important for a brand to have likable and consistent tone and voice. Having that same consistent tone over time is what will help build a brand.

Here’s a video on business tone pointing out how it is a powerful tool for determining the outcome of communications.

It also states that the tone of a written document reflects the attitude of the writer. Your tone is directed at the reader, at the message, or both.

Tone quality falls into two categories, negative or positive (more about this in the subsections and lessons to follow). For the most part, positive tone elicits positive responses and negative tone elicits negative responses. To ensure a reader’s perspective in business writing, that good will that is so important to getting things done, positive tone is a MUST.

Another video from further explains the difference between voice and tone and how they both put you in control of your brand’s communication and perception.

According to this Acrolinx article about what tone is and why it matters, tone of voice is how the character of your business comes through in your words, both written and spoken. It’s not about what you say, but rather the way that you say it, and the impression it makes on everyone who reads or hears you.

Think about it. Everyone you meet has their own way of expressing themselves that’s as unique as their face or fingerprint. Some are pleasant and polite. Others are pushy and in your face. Some say so much with just a few words. Others never seem to get to the point. Companies are no different. Take a look at the examples below.

All three descriptions mean roughly the same thing, but they’re expressed in completely different ways. That affects the impression you get, and how you feel about the person who’s speaking. Why?

Because when you read a company’s content, you understand it on two levels. The facts tell the analytical side of your brain what the company does, while the tone tells the creative side what they’d be like to deal with. (More about the science behind this a bit later)

Despite its name, tone of voice isn’t just about how you speak. It includes all the words you use in your business content, including in your website, sales emails, product brochures, call-center scripts, and client presentations, to name just a few examples.

Oh, and by the way, tone of voice isn’t the same as good writing or strong messaging. It’s the next level up from those things. It’s about using language to give your brand its own distinct and recognisable voice.

All the content one online company produces should have the same tone of voice.

When that tone is consistent, the audience hears the same person speaking whenever and however they deal with that company. That shows people they’re a consistent, reliable company to deal with, and that every part of their experience with that company will be equally good.

It’s important for you as a future CSR to be aware of that voice consistency and how critical it is. (Those who want to find out six reasons why every company should be focused on tone of voice may read the full Acrolinx article linked above.)

A cohesive tone is how you project yourself as part of a unit, rather than as an individual. The last thing you want is for your customers to think:

“Man, I hope Larry answers my technical question, he’s the only one that gets it.”


“Please, please, please don’t let Marge get this email, she always makes me feel guilty for reaching out.”

Your customers need to know that whenever they reach out, day or night, they will receive the same level of support no matter who gets back to them. Source: What Does Your Support Tone of Voice Say About Your Company Culture?

Here’s another video that illustrates the point further with some examples and states that brand tone of voice is simply the way you speak to your audience through the written word. It guides what you say in writing, and how you say it over all of your communications be that print or digital. We dare add the same goes for both speech and writing.

To put it in a nutshell, your message is what you’re trying to communicate. Your tone of voice is how you communicate it.

Tone takes a statement and either breathes life into it… or sucks the life out of it. Although this is taken from a Copyhackers’ article focused on the tone of voice in copywriting, it is applicable to online communication in general.

When working for an online store selling particular brands, make sure your tone and voice in communicating with the customers reflect the tone and voice of the brand(s) and the store you represent.

Nice, you got it!

But how do you create the appropriate tone? More patience, please! We’re going to talk about it in details in the following lines and lessons on this topic as soon as we explain why tone is so significant especially in online communication.

Why Tone Matters in Online Communication

How often in your life have you heard the phrase: “It’s not what you said but how you said it”?

Sounds familiar, right?

How about this one? Do you agree with the statement? Think about it.

Also, what do you think of the next fact?

Did you know that?

Now, who wouldn’t agree that the way you say your words greatly matters? Your tone of voice adds meaning and a lot of extra information to everything you say and even write.

Ten different listeners usually get ten different perceptions of a single message. Surprised? Don’t be. It’s just a matter of interpreting what’s being said or written.

Moreover, In 1967, Albert Mehrabian came up with the “7%-38%-55%” rule determining that communication is made up of three parts:

  • The actual words you use (7%)
  • The tone of delivery (38%), and
  • The body language accompanying your words (55%)

Merely using positive language in conversations (e.g., “thank you”) only has a 7% impact on customers. To truly connect with your audience, you need to also incorporate positive tone of voice and body language. This is true for over the phone, in person, or in writing, as stated in this Zendesk article on how to satisfy customers using the right tone of voice, as well as supported by scientific research.

Guess what – tone of voice is a fast and effective way to increase your customer service!

To further illustrate this point, check out the following story from an excellent article Why Tone of Voice Matters in Customer Service, ESPECIALLY Online

“And by the way, I don’t appreciate the condescending response.”

I was confused, embarrassed, and frankly, scared that I had just alienated an important client.

Years ago, when I was working at my first “real” job at a marketing agency, a customer had asked me for clarification on how we calculated a particular number in a report that we had sent him.

I responded with what I thought was a thorough explanation, and as I fired off the email, I happily thought, “this should clear things right up.”

Boy, was I wrong.

Not only did it turn out that my explanation didn’t help at all, but the customer was apparently offended at my email.

It took a bit of discussion to smooth over, but it turned out that he found my general tone—and use of a smiley face — condescending as I explained our method.

I didn’t say anything rude or condescending; it’s the way that I said it that the customer misinterpreted as rude.

I was lucky in this situation, as I was able to explain myself, apologise and mend the relationship… but that isn’t always the case.

It was also the moment that I realised just how important tone of voice is in customer service, especially online

The author of the article further asks: How can tone make such an impact on the way our words are interpreted?

And this is what he answers.

Well, part of the reason is that our brains process the words we hear separately from the tone in which we hear them. Remember?

In fact, Sophie Scott, a neurobiology researcher at University College London, published a study suggesting that words and tone are sent to two completely different parts of our brain.

Here’s how they work: “Using fMRI Dr Scott has shown that the brain takes speech and separates it into words and “melody” – the varying intonation in speech that reveals mood, gender and so on. Her studies suggest words are then shunted over to the left temporal lobe for processing, while the melody is channelled to the right side of the brain, a region more stimulated by music.”

So when we say something to customers — or anyone — their brains interpret the meaning of what you say by both your words and your “melody”.

But we don’t just interpret tone from words we hear; our brains process the words we read in a similar way.

The same author further refers to a 2012 study in the Journal of Neuroscience, which suggests that when we read, we trigger an “inner voice” in our brains that reads the words as if we were hearing them, allowing us to pick up on nuances like tone and inflection.

Think about the last fiction book you read that you really loved. Do you remember coming across passages where the main characters were speaking, and you could almost “hear” their voices in your head?

Pretty crazy, right?

Now imagine that every time you write an email to a customer, they’re doing the exact same thing, except in their heads, they’re assigning that voice and tone to YOU.

That’s why it’s so important to consider the impact of our tone, even when we’re sitting behind a keyboard.

Got it?

You could also check out more on the importance of tone of voice and why you should get it right in this article by Pixus. You see?

“The tone of your writing is especially important in occupational writing because it reflects the image you project to your readers and thus determines how they will respond to you, your work, and your company. Depending on your tone, you can appear sincere and intelligent or angry and uninformed… The wrong tone in a letter or a proposal might cost you a customer.”

Philip C. Kolin, Successful Writing at Work, Concise 4th ed. Cengage, 2015 – taken from Tone in Writing Definitions and Examples by ThoughtCo

Furthermore, a tone of voice is an expression of a company’s values and way of thinking, and it’s not to be considered lightly. Just how the tone of your partner’s voice when speaking can instigate hurt feelings, or even an argument, the wrong tone of voice in addressing your (potential) customers can also put them off.

It’s significant for the following reasons:

  • It tells consumers who you are – so it should reflect your company’s genuine values.
  • It’s what makes you different – it can demonstrate your warmth, expertise, sense of humour, or any other attribute that you want to display to consumers, and sets you apart from your competition.
  • It helps to build trust – customers form an image of a person or company based on the tone of voice you present. By doing this, customers feel like they’re getting to know the brand or company, bringing with it a sense of trust and familiarity. Developing a consistent tone of voice across all of your customers’ connections makes you seem genuine and your customers feel at ease.
  • It can be used to influence and persuade – Once you have gained the trust of your potential customers, you can use this to influence their decisions and persuade them into doing business with you. After all, they are more likely to do business with a company they like and trust.

In all cases, remember that you as a CSR will be speaking on behalf of your employer and the online store you’re working for. So, mind every single word you use and match your tone and voice to that of the company and brand you’re representing.

Many online forms of communication such as emails or social media messages usually lack non-verbal information, right?

That’s why being aware of how people can sense our tone even when reading our messages is vital. Using the right tone can help prevent miscommunicationavoid conflict, and build great long-term relationships with your company’s audience.

Before we continue, let’s just briefly summarise our main learnings so far, shall we? Actually, it’s already been done for us in this valuable article by Chatwee, so let’s check out what it says.

Varying tone of voice is something we’re all familiar with, yet might not be able to define precisely. For the purpose of this lesson, let’s leave out specialist linguistic definitions and assume that tone of voice is a way to express the feeling you attach to a statement, a method of conveying attitude.

A person’s voice stays the same most of the times, their tone changes, depending on the feeling underpinning the message being communicated.

Obviously, using the right tone of voice when talking to a client is a huge part of the overall experience they develop when contacting your company. As a CSR, you are your company!

So, how do you make this experience positive, that is, how do you determine the right tone of voice? Here comes the answer.

What Is the Appropriate Tone?

One of the most important things you can do as an employee and colleague is to use appropriate language in the workplace. In the business world, making a good impression and projecting yourself as mature, intelligent, confident, and professional is critical to long-term success.

But you knew it, right?

On the other hand, inappropriate language, whether spoken or written, can negatively affect your credibility and put off or even offend those you work with and your customers. Both in speech and in writing, take the time and make the effort to use appropriate language and tone of voice.

Check out the full WriteExpress article on using appropriate language at work for specific tips that will help you become a more courteous employee and colleague. Although it’s focused on the language you use with your co-workers, don’t you think it’s also applicable to communicating with your customers? Certainly!

Sure, we understand that using the right tone is important, but what IS the right tone?

Well, that depends. On a lot of things. In the lines below and the lessons to come, you’ll find out the most important factors when it comes to customer service tone. Act on them, and you’ll be ahead of 99% of your competitors when it comes to delivering great service in the right tone.

Now, let’s finally see what that appropriate tone in customer service is.

One of the biggest challenges of finding the best tone is that there’s no “right” answer that works every time.

Surprised? We doubt it.

It depends on you, your company and brand’s voices and perhaps, more importantly, your customers, who they are, and how they feel in a given situation.

But in customer support, every single interaction is a chance to get better. So, by starting with a few research-backed guidelines and practicing conscious changes to your tone in every interaction, you’ll become an expert in very little time. Source: Why Tone of Voice Matters in Customer Service, ESPECIALLY Online

According to this article from Daily Writing Tips, which is more focused on writing but applicable to speaking and business communication as well, tone is established when the author answers a few basic questions about the purpose of the writing:

  • Why am I writing this?
  • Who am I writing it to?
  • What do I want the readers to learn, understand, or think about?

Tone depends on these and other questions. It should be clear and concise, confident but courteous. The writing level should be sophisticated but not pretentious, based on the reader’s familiarity with or expertise in the topic, and should carry an undertone of cordiality, respect, and, especially in business writing, an engagement in cooperation and mutual benefit.

Once you have a good idea of the type of information you want to share with your audience, whether it’s through your company’s website, email marketing or social media sites, you’ll want to work on integrating a distinctive tone and style into your content to keep your message consistent and build your online personality.

Choosing your tone requires you to really think about the personality you want to portray online. It’s important to establish an online writing tone that’s cohesive with your company’s brand personality from the beginning of your content i.e. message creation process in order to maintain consistency.

We may sound like a broken record now, but it’s critical for you to fully understand this. You still wonder why?

The tone you write in will impact the perception readers have of your employer’s brand or business, so be sure to take the time to choose one tactically. Of course, it means it will also greatly influence your online CSR career.

In addition, the article Polishing your Online Writing Style and Tone narrowed down different writing tones and their effect on readers into four categories.

Although this article is also mainly focused on writing web content and commercials, you may want to check it out, learn more about different brand tones, and apply the knowledge you gain from it to your specific CSR role. It won’t hurt, we promise! Quite the contrary!

After everything you’ve read so far, you’re still not sure exactly what kind of tone you should use?

In that case, here are some general guidelines another article on tone in business writing suggests to you to keep in mind when considering what kind of tone to use and how to present information in that tone:

  • Be confident
  • Be courteous and sincere
  • Use appropriate emphasis and subordination
  • Use non-discriminatory language
  • Stress the benefits for the reader
  • Write at an appropriate level of difficulty

You’ll find more details about each tip if you follow the link to the article.

Moreover, here’s what another credible source says about how to satisfy customers using the right tone of voice particularly in written conversations and what that tone should be like.

Customer service tone of voice over email, chat or any other textual content is conveyed solely through language — i.e., diction, syntax, punctuation in writing — not through the speaker’s tone of voice or body language.

Customers can be just as sensitive to attitudes conveyed in writing through textual communication channels as they would be through verbal ones.

More about different communication channels and the tone they require in one of the following lessons.

It’s important for customer support staff to understand how subtle differences in word choice or punctuation can change the tone of their content, and how to decide which tone is best based on the listener’s emotional state and expectations.

So, what tone of voice do these experts advise CSRs to use? Here’s what they say.

Choosing the right tone for customer support staff is not a one-off task. Tone needs to constantly evolve to meet the needs of your varying customer base. Thankfully, a specific tone of voice to be used in textual content can be adopted and adapted by entire support staff. They’re often included in the company’s writing guidelines.

Customer service staff needs to be empathetic to the needs of the customer. If they’re particularly annoyed about something and just want to see their problem solved, it’s not a good idea to joke about how “annoying it must be” or how “that must suck”. Your customer is already irritated because of your company — don’t think about adding fuel to the fire.

On the other hand, if the customer is writing back in a way that indicates they’re willing to play along, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of humour in your content if used with discretion. It can lighten the mood and just might go viral.

Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to tell what kind of tone your audience will prefer. Software Advice, a company that evaluates customer service systems, went ahead and researched what kind of tone people prefer in various support situations, which is outlined further in this article (linked above).

Or you may want to check out the same research results visually presented below.

As suggested in this article about using the right tone of voice to enhance customer service from Open Access BPO, and as you’ve probably realised so far and heard many times before, choosing the right tone for customer support must be done on a case-by-case basis, as tone must evolve to meet the needs of the specific customer you’re talking to.

Exactly the same advice from various experts. Even their words are almost the same! How come? Well, perhaps it’s because that’s the only undeniable fact to stick to if you want to succeed as a CSR and provide outstanding support to each customer.

Therefore, you need to be trained and educated regarding communication techniques. You must be able to gauge the mood and personality of the person you’re communicating with and come up with appropriate responses.

Luckily, you’re in good hands now!

It’s not always possible to tell what tone of voice your customers would prefer, but you may consider the advice in the following lessons on this topic to optimise conversations.

However, before we move on and dig deeper into the topic, here are several highlights to remember from this subsection.

Using appropriate tone means writing (or speaking) in a way that suits the situation. Just like you do in face-to-face conversations, adapt your tone depending on who you’re writing to and what you’re writing about, as suggested by MailChimp.

Using the appropriate tone in business writing is an important aspect of communicating the desired message and of achieving the desired results. When determining the appropriate tone to use, ask yourself why you are writing something (purpose), who the audience is, and what you want readers to learn — and more importantly, to do — with the information.

When you know the answers to these questions, you will be able to identify and use the appropriate tone. In turn, the appropriate tone will help you to engage your reader and propel him or her to action. Check out the full article How to use tone in your writing from White Express for ten more tips that will help you achieve the proper tone in your business correspondence.

Done? Good. We’re now ready to summarise the main learnings from this introductory lesson.

In Summary

According to a Distilled article about shaping a brand’s tone of voice, a tone of voice expresses a unique personality, turning a faceless company into a group of people with their own special way of working or, in other words, a brand. It is only through embracing a tone of voice that consistency can be achieved – breeding familiarity and trust with an audience.

As another great Help Scout’s article about the customer service tone further advises, since so much of your interaction with customers online will be through words alone, taking on a customer service tone is a way to add some personality to your messages.

Think of it as a way of speaking that shows the recipient that they are more than just a number to you, and that behind that screen, you’re a real person, too.

Therefore, make a conscious decision about the tone you’re going to use relying on your customer’s attitude and feelings, the purpose of your message, and the desired outcome.

OK. You got it. Now, let’s check your understanding of the basic tone and voice concepts before we proceed to more details.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Is it important for every CSR within the same company to tend to use consistent tone of voice that’s cohesive with their company’s brand personality?

a. No. Every CSR is an individual with their own specific tone and voice so diversity is OK. Customers can always ask to speak to the representative they like most.

b. Yes. CSRs have to adopt the tone of their company’s brand(s) because they’re speaking on behalf of that company.

2. Which of the following statements is TRUE?

a. CSRs don’t have to adjust their tone to different customers and communication channels. It’s better that they always use the same formal tone of voice.

b. The tone of voice does NOT matter in customer service at all. What counts are only the exact words you use when communicating with your customers.

c. Using the right tone can help prevent miscommunication, avoid conflict, and build great long-term relationships with your company’s customers.

3. What is the appropriate tone in customer service?

a. It depends on a lot of factors – primarily on the situation and context, your customer’s attitude and feelings in a given situation, your company’s tone, the purpose of your message and the outcome you want. So, it should constantly evolve to meet the needs of your customers but you can never go wrong if you treat all of them with respect and empathy.

b. It should always be humorous and casual, no matter what situation you’re dealing with.

c. It should always be courteous and highly formal because most customers prefer it. After all, that’s business communication! You’re not chatting with your friends to be casual and relaxed.

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