How to Embrace a Human Tone in the Age of Bots

As a support professional, writing is core to the job. For many organizations, it’s the only way we communicate and connect with our users on a 1-on-1 basis. But as crucial as this skill is, we don’t necessarily get infinite opportunities to enrich our writing skills: the hit-the-ground-running experience of getting thrown into a backlogged queue still groggy-eyed from sleep on your first day at the job and reaching down deep to come up with good responses right away is one that sounds all too familiar.

And as a department, it’s not like there are a glut of calm valleys between ticket volume spikes where you can send the team on an all-expenses-paid writing retreat and really align those chakras to let the perfect support writing flow forth. One widespread bug or outage leads into another, and it’s easy to fall into a posture of reactiveness (read: scrambling) instead of proactiveness. Before you know it, there’s not much separating your writing from the metallic tones of Siri or Alexa.

So with the winds of chaos swirling around us, how can support stay intentional with the tone we use every day? Nobody wants to wake up one day and realize they’ve been stringing pre-made chunks of text together without really stopping to make sure that the sentiment that’s behind the text is coming across too.

Write like You Talk

This first tip is an easy and straightforward one and something you can implement right away. Just write like you talk! In all likelihood, if a friend called you with a question related to your work right now, you could verbally explain the issue to them in a relaxed, articulate manner without thinking anything of it. Or if I walked up to your desk and said “What’s the deal with that bug you just filed? Are there any workarounds?” – you would describe it perfectly and with just the right amount of context, and segue right into asking if I’m free to do frisbee golf with the rest of the team this Thursday.

The point is that sometimes when we go to “compose” an actual written answer, we overthink it and we lose the friendliness that’s so valuable to customers. Ask yourself “How would I explain this to a friend?” and try to recapture some of that magic.

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Write like it’s Going to End Up in Your CEO’s Inbox

You know that adorable thing that users do where they try to get around support or your site’s security functions by hitting up your higher-ups on social media? Yeah, that can be frustrating. But it’s also a good exercise for ensuring high-quality support: if you keep in mind that anything you say in a support response can be copied and pasted, screenshotted, or otherwise immortalized in some way and then forwarded along to your company’s CEO, there’s a built-in fire lit under you for getting things right the first time.

Everyone reading this article right now is obviously a support champion and at the absolute top of their game, but any product that people feel passionately about will see its share of rare misunderstandings trickle up to Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. from time to time. Chances are that if your CEO ever does end up with a complaint about how your team handled something, they may not be intimately acquainted enough with support procedures to know if you were “in the right” or not. But what they will know right away is whether you answered respectfully, sounded personable, and made sense. The question “If this thread ended up in my CEO’s inbox right now, would it make clear sense and would I be proud to have my name attached to it?” is one that bears repeating.

Play it Back

If you’ve ever gotten to the end of a paragraph only to look back and realize it made no sense whatsoever, this one’s for you. Or maybe the problem is that you’re not realizing it at all! Regardless, get in the habit of reading (or whispering/mouthing, be respectful of appropriate volume levels in your office) your written responses out loud to yourself before sending. Just hearing what the words sound like in your own voice can make the weak or awkward parts stick out immediately. Even better: run a few phrases by an officemate and ask for feedback. Two heads are better than one, and their perspective could be useful for improving your tone.

Set up Mentorships

An extension of the playback idea above is to simply formalize it by setting up mentorships. Pair experienced members of the staff with newer members, and ask them to check in with each other now and then throughout the day. Having an honest opinion from another human helps, and an acknowledged mentorship can get people into the rhythm of hearing feedback from someone other than their boss. To add to that, sometimes veteran agents who intrinsically get the concept of sounding personable in their responses are more comfortable giving feedback if it’s baked into their day as a regular occurrence.

Avoid Overly-specific Scripts

A problem that plagues some support organizations and prevents agents from writing creatively is that their processes are too prescriptive. And I get where this comes from: in the tech world (and, dare I venture, in the business world at large?) the future seems murky. Audiences are fickle. You’re not sure what the long-term future holds for a given product or service, or what your resources will look like from one quarter to the next. Staff members tend to do very short stints at a company before moving on to their next adventure, and loyalty takes a backseat to maximizing those incremental moves up the career ladder.

Certainly, support managers are focused on keeping their teams engaged and happy, but they also want to ensure that responses are consistent across the team. There’s an emphasis on good internal documentation and processes, which is a positive thing! But too much of a good thing can contribute to overly-specific procedures and taking a more robotic tone.

If agents are receiving feedback that they sound too robotic in their responses, scale back the level of specificity in those scripts. Instead of saying that the procedure is “First send snippet X, then snippet Y, then snippet Z” try providing an internal doc that explains how that part of the product works, with a list of facts, troubleshooting steps, etc. Challenge them to pick out the relevant points for each interaction and sew them together in a natural way, just as they would in conversation.

Removing that safe cocoon of fully grab-and-go, ready-made responses can be scary at first but can ultimately show folks how well they can write when obliged to. This is a good candidate for something to try out with your team, and ask for feedback on before continuing to iterate: “Hey, let’s try something new for two weeks” is a lot less scary than “HERE’S HOW WE DO IT NOW, OKAY?”

Ask a Neutral Party

When it’s time to audit the canon support responses that you do have, ask a neutral party for help. Have someone totally uninvolved with your product or service read those responses, and ask them if they understand what’s being communicated and whether the voice sounds right. Trusted former colleagues, family members, pals from high school, or poor unsuspecting souls out walking on your street are all good candidates for this.

Go Back to Basics

Maybe it’s been a while since you’ve revisited your support team’s writing guidelines, or maybe your org has never established what its distinct voice should sound like. It could be worth a focused session where support leads or documentation specialists sit down and create some standards or revisit this topic. There are myriad guides out there on how to find your own tone of voice, and the copywriting and marketing teams at your firm can also help to make sure the support voice fits in with the larger company one. But once the voice you’re shooting for is established, bring examples of it to the larger team as often as possible: call out good examples of it in team meetings, put a scrolling display of some of your favorite tickets up on a screen in the office, and talk about it in 1-on-1s. Everyone on the team should know what the desired tone looks (and sounds) like.

Fellow human, you got this. You can differentiate yourself by embracing a human tone in all your support responses. Most of the advice here boils down to doing things like relaxing and asking for feedbacktwo very doable things. After all, you are fairly certain you’re a human rather than a robot / replicant / cylon, right? So it shouldn’t be too hard to sound like one when you write.

At the end of the day, it’s less about concocting perfectly casual sentences and more about connection. Customers are hungry for the kind of support experience that makes them feel connected in an increasingly disconnected (from humans) world. And this is where we find the opportunity to differentiate ourselves.