A guide to tone-matching in live chat interactions

One of the ways to establish a connection during a conversation is to match the tone of your conversation partner. The tone in which we say things largely informs how others respond.

In person, tone comes from the way we use vocal and visual cues. It’s how we inflect words; how our expressions add layers of meaning onto what we say. But how do you tone-match when the conversation is unfolding online, via a live chat session?

This question is one with which many customer service agents struggle. Tone-matching is key to building rapport in a customer support context. But in typed live chat conversations, it’s also easier said than done.

So, here’s a handy guide on tone-matching in live chat interactions.


What is tone-matching?

‘Tone’ can mean a few things when it comes to conversations. In face-to-face conversations, your tone would mostly refer to the pitch, quality and strength of your voice. More widely, ‘tone’ in a conversation refers to the mood behind the words you say. It’s how you say – and signal – the message you want to share.

Tone-matching, then, is aligning your tone with the person you’re chatting to. And this is particularly important in customer service, as employees strive to convey empathy and establish relationships with customers.

For example, angry or upset customers don’t want gratingly chirpy replies. Happy customers, meanwhile, will find that happiness dampened if the service they receive is formal and grave. Tone matching helps to treat customers respectfully, appropriately, and in the way most likely to improve their experience.

But tone-matching in live chat interactions can be challenging. You don’t have vocal cues or body language to help identify the customer’s mood. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean that you can’t match the tone of the customer. You, like them, must rely on the implicit tone of the typed messages you receive.


Why tone-matching in live chat is important

Matching the tone of your customer is a way to establish the human touch in your service. It subtly displays your empathy because you’re identifying and responding to the customer’s mood through language use. This empathy makes sure the customer feels listened to.

Tone-matching in live chat can also aid understanding. You’re using language the customer is comfortable with. You’re showing that you are on their level. And so, you build rapport and put your customer at ease.

Responding to a customer with a tone adapted to theirs demonstrates that you’re paying attention to them. They’re getting a response that mirrors their mood and their question. (And not a stiff, unengaged cookie-cutter reply.)

In short, all this adds up into stronger relationships and customer loyalty. The customer feels heard and is more likely to build a connection with you. In turn, you’re giving another reason for them to stay loyal to you.


How: identifying the tone

You can’t match the customer’s tone if you can’t identify it. Identifying the customer tone in live chat conversations means looking at things like their formality, their punctuation, and their word use. It can also help to compare these to the context of the situation.

•       Formality

A good way to gauge the customer’s tone is to consider how formal they’re being. An informal tone suggests a relaxed customer that would be happy with a less formal reply. Look for colloquial greetings like ‘Hi’ or ‘Hey’, initialisms and text speak like ‘lol’, and GIFs or emojis. These informal features in a message suggest a relaxed, friendly customer tone.

Meanwhile, a more serious tone comes across in more formal language. Think ‘hello’ instead of ‘hi’, or full words and sentences instead of abbreviations.

•       Content

The content of the message holds all sort of tone markers. Punctuation, word choice and placement all help you identify customer tone. For instance, lots of full stops create short, punctuated sentences that could denote a serious, terse tone. (Which calls for a serious, empathetic tone in response.)

Words that mitigate the customer’s point, (i.e. ‘just’) suggest a patient and friendly tone. Conversely, intensifiers like ‘major’, ‘very’, and ‘really’ could denote an excited or highly emotional tone.

As another example, if the customer’s first live chat message is a request with a ‘thank you’ or ‘thanks’, it suggests a more brusque and serious tone. That is, the customer wants something done already. So, a light-hearted, chatty tone could clash with their serious, focused tone.

•       Context

Finally, consider the topic of the conversation or the context of the situation. A customer with a big problem about money is less likely to have a chilled-out tone. They might have both friendly and serious tone markers. But, in the context of a serious issue, the serious markers hold greater weight for tone-matching.

Meanwhile, a customer with the same tone markers but a simple question is more likely to accept your friendly tone-matching.


How: matching the tone

Once you’ve identified the customer’s tone, you can adjust your messages to match it.

Relax your tone when customers have a happy or informal tone. For example, follow suit in swapping your hellos and greetings for ‘hi’. If it fits your branding, you could use a GIF or an emoji. You could use more contractions (I’d instead of I would).

Stay serious when customers are formal or have a negative tone. A friendly, upbeat tone won’t go down well with an upset customer. With terse or angry customer tones, tone-matching becomes about responding appropriately and empathetically. So, up your empathy statements.

Remember to remain professional and stay within the bounds of your company tone of voice. No matter how relaxed or informal the customer is, they will still expect professionalism and consistent branding. Comedic GIFs have no place in a healthcare live chat session, for instance.

If in doubt, play it safe. If you’re unsure about the customer’s tone or true mood, then stay neutral when you reply. Focus on solving their problem. Once you’re sure of their tone, you can start to relax (or tighten) your tone in kind.


The don’ts of tone-matching in live chat

When tone-matching in live chat, there are a few things to avoid.

First, don’t match your customer tone-for-tone when their tone is negative. For example, don’t meet sarcasm with sarcasm, abuse with abuse, etcetera. While this should go without saying, it’s easier to slip up when under strain.

Second, don’t completely drop the company tone of voice. If you are formal financial services brand, a jokey, overly informal tone of voice won’t instil confidence. Even, that is, if the customer seems informal and relaxed.

And finally, don’t put your tone-matching above the content of your message. Remember that first and foremost, you’re solving a problem, answering a question. The tone-matching needs to fit around that.


Tone-matching in live chat

Tone-matching in live chat means finding a balance between empathy and your branding. It’s being able to recognise the customer’s tone and match it appropriately. (Whether that’s by acknowledging their tone, or countering it with empathy.)

The common saying goes, “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it”. In live chat interactions, it’s both. It’s what you say and how you say it.


Useful links

The Mehrabian myth, non-verbal communication, and live chat software

Types of customers on your chat channel, and how to handle them

The importance of chatbot tone of voice