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The Misunderstanding of Tone

The Misunderstanding of Tone

/ Operations, Workforce Management, People, Development
The Misunderstanding of Tone

How this issue has pointed call centers in the wrong direction.

Tone is the most critical aspect of agent customer service, and everyone instinctively knows what good versus lousy tone sounds like.

But when managing agents, the question is not what good tone sounds like. Instead, it is how to create it. How to make it happen. And how to control it. Especially regarding agents whose tone is unsatisfactory, which is prevalent throughout our industry.

And contrary to common belief, tone is not mostly created by voice inflection, pitch, or intonation. Instead, it is primarily created and controlled by an agent’s word choice and manners. And while this may seem counterintuitive to some, I will explain how it works here.

But first, I would like to point out that scripts that are designed to sound warm and thoughtful typically sound fake and phony in tone; they are to be avoided, and scripts are not a consideration in this article.

Also, it is not uncommon for an agent to convey a warm and upbeat tone while performing less than professionally. A friendly and cheerful tone combined with a lack of professionalism equals a negative customer experience. A competent sounding tone, defined by inherent rules of professionalism, is a prerequisite for what qualifies as acceptable tone.

Going back to the main point, consider this fact: it is almost impossible for an agent to exhibit unsatisfactory tone when executing professional word choice and manners. Another way of putting it: never will a well-spoken and well-mannered agent display anything but good tone.

And the variables that define well-spoken and well-mannered, which are professional word choice and manners, are highly specific, teachable, and predetermined before any agent handles any call. They define the requirements of what qualifies as a competent sounding call center agent.

Here is another fact: when an agent displays unsatisfactory tone, it is always the result of habitual mistakes in their word choice and manners. These flawed habits must be identified and corrected for the agent to discontinue displaying unsatisfactory tone.

And then there is this: an agent’s boredom, insincerity, lack of warmth, lack of caring, etc., conveyed in their tone, is easily remedied by holding them accountable for executing only professional word choice and manners. And executing them requires no more time, effort, or energy than not executing them.

So, the question is not whether a tone of warmth, sincere appreciation and empathy, professionalism, and eagerness to serve is essential. Everyone knows it is. But the question is how to create such tone. And then how to control and maintain it in every moment of each call an agent handles daily.

Many agents have positive mindsets but do not know how to perform in a manner that competently conveys a warm, eager, and professional tone.

The simple and straightforward answer is proper management of agents’ word choices and manners. And therein lies the problem with our industry’s approach to tone.

As most pundits, experts, and digital software companies do not acknowledge the role of word choice and manners as it relates to tone, these primary dictates of tone have been shoved to the side within industry discourse.

What is left is a misguided narrative that says tone is most created and dictated by voice inflection. And like the cart leading the horse, the call center industry continues spinning its wheels with this same flawed perspective and ineffective approach to its premier customer experience issue, tone.

Understanding How Tone Works

An agent’s tone is a direct reflection of their mindset. If an agent’s mindset is that they are just going through the motions, do not sincerely feel like being helpful, etc., it will come across clearly in their tone. It does so because agents express their mindset (typically unconsciously) through their word choices and mannerisms (often subtly) in critical moments throughout their conversations. These word choices and mannerisms dictate how customers perceive an agent’s tone.

Unsatisfactory tone is readily remedied. By identifying the habitual flaws in an agent’s word choice and manners, teaching them how to fix them, and then holding the agent accountable for executing the fixes in each moment of each call they handle, they will then execute only word choice and manners that align with what qualifies as quality tone and customer service.

Using this process, even agents with a less-than-desirable mindset are held accountable for executing only good tone, which in turn positively affects their mindset in a powerful way.

Many agents have positive mindsets but do not know how to perform in a manner that competently conveys a warm, eager, and professional tone. Such agents must be taught the skill and discipline of being a professional call center agent, and most are happy to learn.

Tone Training Case Study

A typical training scenario for us goes like this: agent Amy is a nice person, but her tone greatly suffers. And because customer service suffers when tone does, her customer service is unsatisfactory.

Amy is not outwardly negative, but her tone sounds too casual, aloof, and disinterested. She often comes across as not sincerely interested in helping. Her calls routinely include awkward moments because of how she communicates, creating uncomfortable moments for customers. Amy sounds untrained and unprofessional.

We listen to a few of her calls and immediately identify the problem. Amy has several specific flaws in her word choice and manners habits. We show her how to replace these wrong ways of saying and doing things with the right way of saying and doing them. We then begin assessing her performance to ensure she makes the necessary adjustments while keeping an ear out for any other flaws in her approach that might reveal themselves.

At first, Amy is reluctant. She is comfortable with her cool and aloof approach. But soon, with some managerial urging, she makes the necessary adjustments to her game. Doing this requires no more effort or talk-time from Amy, just resolve.

Suddenly, Amy sounds highly professional. Her tone is polite, warm, sincerely engaged, and helpful. Customers like her. Amy can hear and feel the change in customers’ perception of her, and it makes her feel better about herself and her job. Amy has been transformed into a highly professional call center agent with excellent tone.

We then perpetually evaluate her with precise focus. If she slips a little, we highlight it so that she corrects it. Should we discontinue managing Amy’s performance in this meticulous fashion, she will quickly regress to her old ways.

Going forward, Amy will now perform as a highly professional call center agent delivering flawless tone and customer service throughout every moment of every call she handles daily, with little variation.

By managing agent word choice and manners with this level of detailed scrutiny, we put an end to any gaps in professionalism or gestures of a negative mindset. This leaves only positive, professional, upbeat, and empathic performance. This process puts us and call center management in complete control of their agents’ tone, professionalism, customer service quality, and customer satisfaction levels.

The Marginalization of Words

Tone has been thrust to the forefront of today’s call center industry discourse, not only because it is the most critical aspect of customer service but because of the widespread perception that tone is created and dictated by voice inflection. This premise is flawed, so tone remains a rampant problem that leads to endless discussion in search of an answer.

In the process, a theme has emerged whereby pundits deliberately discredit words and word choice. I have read more than one article where the main thrust is to actively discount the importance of words and word choice in making the point that tone is the far more critical issue. This well-meaning approach is seriously misplaced.

Just to be clear: call centers could just as well be called word centers. The call center industry could just as well be called the word center industry. The primary thing agents do is exchange words with customers. Words are the most critical ingredient in the call center product, and word execution is what most impacts the quality of customer service, the customer experience, and call centers themselves. Nothing else comes close.

Promoting the importance of tone does not mean discounting the importance of words. That is backward. If one is promoting the importance of tone, one must promote the importance of words because words and the manners they create are what create and control tone.

How We Got Here

From my perspective, the call center industry is often at odds with its product’s main ingredient, words. And the only reason for this is its inability to manage them.

If call centers could simply wave a magic wand that would result in their agents being perfectly well-spoken and well-mannered in every moment of every call, which would guarantee ideal tone and customer service, the importance of word choice and manners would instantly become all the rage. Everyone would happily acknowledge it was all about word choice and manners all along, and the clinking of champagne glasses would be deafening.

As it is, our industry remains wholly reliant on crude QA methods, including digital ones like sentiment scoring, too rudimentary to include the consideration of word choice and manners. This has taken what most determines the quality of tone, customer service, and the customer experience entirely out of the equation. The direct result is low customer satisfaction levels and an industry forever scratching its head as to why.

Ensuring agents convey only excellent tone and customer service throughout each moment of every call they handle daily is straightforward. The variables are in plain sight, predetermined before any call begins, and easy for agents to learn and execute. The answer is in their words. It just requires knowing how to manage them.

Trey Briggs

Trey Briggs

Trey Briggs is a top call center industry thought leader, President of BCI, and host of the industry-leading podcast Call Center Confidential. BCI currently serves several hospital networks and other service-centered call centers. Trey can be reached at [email protected].

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