October 9th, 2014
For years, researchers have studied disconnects between sender and receiver in electronic communications. It’s challenging to convey emotion and tone, for instance, via email or chat without the benefit of cues such as facial expressions, hand gestures, or vocal tone.
One study examined overconfidence over e-mail by comparing the perceived and actual ability of participants to communicate effectively. The results indicated that participants who sent e-mails overestimated their ability to communicate by e-mail and that participants who received e-mails overestimated their ability to interpret e-mail. Furthermore, participants who sent e-mails predicted about 78 percent of the time that their partners would correctly interpret the tone. However, the data revealed that only 56 percent of the time the receiver correctly interpreted the tone. As further noted, the receivers in the study “guessed that they had correctly interpreted the message’s tone” 90 percent of the time.
Earlier this year, Software Advice, an online firm that reviews customer service software, published a new study, based on responses from more than 2,000 consumers, that examines the impact of a support agent’s tone and language on customer satisfaction. Its research revealed that almost two-thirds (65%) of consumers actually prefer a casual tone in support emails, and that nearly half (49%) didn’t even find emoticons or colloquialisms to be inappropriate. This sentiment changed dramatically when consumers were denied a request, however, suggesting that customers expect help desk agents to adapt their tone to the situation.
A recent example supporting these findings that made national headlines was the chat conversation about a mishandled book order between a customer and an Amazon customer service representative. The conversation was unique in that the customer and Amazon CSR assumed the roles of Odin and Thor from Norse mythology. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a look. (Important: Notice that the Amazon CSR is invited into the role-play by the customer – and not the other way around.)
More than anything, this research reveals how our assumptions about the appropriateness of our electronic communications may undermine our effectiveness at work. So, first and foremost, self-awareness is key. Beyond that, consider guidelines that will contribute to the effectiveness of electronic communication, such as:
- Always add a brief greeting rather than jumping right in to the business at hand. It can be as simple as opening the message with “Greetings” before getting down to business.
- Use appropriate grammar, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation.
- Avoid using ALL CAPS, which may be perceived by recipients as shouting.
- Moderate use of exclamation marks.
- Use caution when adding emoticons, such as smiley faces.
- Avoid using all lower-case letters as well, which may appear overly casual or unprofessional.
- Avoid colloquialisms such as “What up?” or “bro”.
- Avoid using abbreviations or industry lexicon that may be misunderstood or not understood at all.
- Always end a message with a brief farewell that conveys gratitude for the opportunity to serve and invites further communication/clarification (in other words, does not assume the issue has been fully resolved). Again, it can be as simple as “Thank you for bringing the matter to our attention. Please let me know if you have further questions or concerns.”
Misunderstandings are inevitable in the cryptic world of computer-mediated communication. But you can reduce the odds of (unwittingly) offending your customers by: obtaining a credible assessment of your ability to accurately convey or interpret written communication; raising your awareness of the impact of tone and language in electronic communication, and; establishing and adhering to guidelines that will set the tone for exceptional customer service!
Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.
Watch the 90-second book trailer.
Illustration by Aaron McKissen.