Social Media: Why It Doesn’t Pay To Talk The Way Customers Talk

voicesage.gr8.image.2014Increasingly, customers respond to business texts the way they do in the rest of their lives: with a chirpy ‘gr8 m8’, ‘tnx’, ‘lol’ and various fun, casual emoji typographical short-cuts. Should you – your organisation or your service provider? I say no – and will tell you why getting as loose with your communication style as ‘the punters’ isn’t actually going to help your cause as much as you might think.

Formal and structured can actually reassure the user

When it comes to social media, there are already enough pitfalls, it seems, to achieving the success organisations might want from it. But one that is often overlooked – mainly because it isn’t an area that many think they might fall down – is language – the tone and style of the content.

Getting that wrong can a can lead to a lot of trouble. The good news is, that with a little care, these traps can avoid be avoided. But first, we need to set the context a bit here and see what is going on when we use language.

Firstly, there is a wide body of research that indicates we feel more at ease as human beings when we recognise that we are in a formal, structured set of processes that will bring us to our desired resolution. That is, we will put up with the slightly annoying frictions of dealing with a big corporation if we have sufficient confidence that “companies like this” usually deliver the outcome required.

A comfort exists, then, when dealing with finance and service issues with ‘serious’ entities. Utilities, telecoms companies and financial institutions are by and large seen as that sort of body, with their use of language and interaction style typically serving to reflect this.

So why should this convention be broken? Some companies feel the need to be ‘chattier’ with customers in social media more so than they might be in, say, a written communication. But the evidence suggests that even if these companies want to be ‘friendlier,’ the register of language really must be characterised as more ‘smart casual’ than ‘urban’ or hoodies and converse shoes, if you will.

Why? Because the more formal language style just does a better job. Indeed, in regulated industries, precise language used in customer interactions is subject to review, audit – sometimes penalty.

And even when moved to open response style interactions in an Interactive Voice Recognition (IVR) or online help function, the brand identity should be considered – and implemented across all channels in a consistent manner, as reflective of the general company ethos.

Don’t mirror for the sake of it

And that includes social media. The tricky aspect here is that social media is an especially thorny one to get right, in that it can be real-time response, and it is published to many, thus amplifying any potential mistakes. On the other hand, in the wider social and cultural context, there is no doubt that we are heading towards a less formal society. Look at the decrease in formal dining, dress, even some established/traditional conversation patterns.

But saying, in effect, ‘Cn u pay us soon, m8?’ is just not going to ever work. It is possible to go too far down the ‘mirror’ route here. Instead, simple gestures that are recognised- the more informal idiom – think, adding the smiley symbol at the end of a formal work interchange – could convey that there is a real person at the end of the communication, but not in a way that erodes your status.

Syntax as well as content

Also pay attention to what is said just as much as how it is said and the sentence structure. The use of positive and negative formulations elicit different response patterns and is a genuine science that is well worth investigating and getting right.

For example, from our own experience with customers, we find clarifying the purpose of a message and simplifying it to its absolute essence is remarkably effective. Look at a quick example to finish off:

“Hello Paul, this is a message from ABC Bank with regards to an outstanding payment of £XX on your account number XYX.”

This communicates that the message is:

1. intended for me

2. from a known entity that I have a relationship with

3. about me needing to pay a sum of money to a particular account

The message could be complicated in all sorts of semi-polite ways… but ultimately, genuinely customers just want to know that this communication is meaningful to them.

The job of a customer conversation is defined by the customer!

Conversations occur in stages, each stage hopefully moving to an outcome. What is interesting is how the response is formulated by an agent or an employee that reflects the desired outcome of the customer, and how the language is adapted to ensure this person clearly understand what steps are to be taken in the resolution process.

The outbound message sets the tone for the conversation and it should be aligned with the brand persona (which by the way can vary per market segment…) but is the key to subsequent exchanges or dialogue. By being formal from the outset might actually cause the responder to put up a guard rather than go down a co-creation of value process path that leads to a fruitful outcome for all parties.

Clear is good

So, let’s sum up. Reflecting the customer’s own use of language back to them may work in some situations. Yes, it can build rapport. But using the right words, clear language to communicate shared and precise understandings, is better and takes clarity of thought.

My advice when it comes to conversational tone in customer social media engagements is to think about language as always doing a set of rational, emotional and social jobs.

Just be clear on what those jobs are today, for this customer, for which business process – then implement that consistently across outreach channels and you’ll be fine.

Maybe even ‘gr8’!


Paul Sweeney, is the Chief Product Officer of VoiceSage.

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