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Getting the Tone Right in Call Centers


“She has the words, but not the music,” said Mark Twain of his wife’s attempts at swearing. When your contact center reps talk to customers, is what they say similarly undermined by how they say it?

If your bank is like most, you don’t stint on contact center training. You recognize that good training translates to real revenue, better employees and better retention. You train diligently on scripts, technology, rules, compliance and productivity tips. But what about tone, style and emotion?

Think of all the ways you have heard these two words spoken: “I’m sorry.” Belligerently, from the playground bully caught in the act. Indifferently, from the toll-taker who hears about lost tickets a dozen times a day. Rudely, from the check-out clerk cautioned about smashing the peaches. And automatically, from the husband who figures he must have done something. If “I’m sorry” is supposed to signal regret, but the tone doesn’t match the words, the words don’t work.

We decided to do some research by calling call centers where we are customers – our phone company, insurance company, bank and so on. Our focus was on whether the reps matched their tone, style, and emotion to their words. We didn’t set out to be hard graders, but not one mystery shop call went well. We could tell that these employees had been well trained by someone on what to say; they made precise, consistent use of scripts, for example. But they seemed to be speaking from memory, not the heart, as though we were remote strangers rather than good customers.

Forget about the techniques we would have liked to find: smiling with the voice, calming our concerns, mirroring our emotions, dialoging vs. monologing and using etiquette. These employees came up short even on the bare basics of sounding professional and human. Most came across as insincere, unprepared, and robotic. Like Mark Twain’s wife, they had the words but not the music.

Can call center reps be trained in “the music”? Absolutely. The arts and skills of customer communication can be and have been mastered and turned into pure competitive advantage. Here are eight suggestions for accomplishing that:

Focus on emotions. The great advantage of the call center over your digital channels is the opportunity to create a positive emotional connection. Your reps will evince emotions. The only question is: what emotions? Those you helped them cultivate, or just those provoked by their morning commute, testy customers or a long day? In script training, employees learn the words to say. In communication arts and skills training, they focus on emotions.

Anticipate objections. This involves not just preparation but exquisite sensitivity because customers often express their objections in emotional ways. If reps are trained to anticipate what a customer might react negatively to, they can surmise the accompanying emotion and how that will be expressed. They can then be prepared to handle the emotion and say the right words with the appropriate feeling. “Surprised” equals “improvise” and that rarely turns out well.

Make smiles heard. Your smile changes your attitude and your voice. Even over the phone, a smile can be detected and affect customers. It can calm them, soothe anger, offer sympathy and soften resistance. While words can accomplish this too, they are unconvincing if not validated by the corresponding emotion.

Specify purpose. Whoever writes your contact center scripts probably knows the purpose of every word, but for reps being handed the scripts, there’s plenty of room for ambiguity. So if training on the scripts is only about when to say what – if it doesn’t include how to say it – don’t be surprised when reps inject unwanted meaning to the words, especially in high-pressure situations. That’s why an offer like “Let me explain that fee” can come across to the customer as condescending or weary, although surely the scriptwriter meant it to sound empathetic and helpful.

Stress sincerity. In our test calls, employees who had information that showed us to be high-value customers would dutifully thank us for our business, but tonelessly, sometimes indifferently. Imagine the difference had they been coached not to just read the words but to convey the sincere belief that those words were proxy for, such as, “Because of customers like you, I have a job, an income and savings!”

Honor etiquette. Etiquette begets etiquette. It lifts the quality of the interaction. We have tested the difference between a casual, “Okay, now…” and a more polite, “Thank you for that information, now may we go on to…” The difference is remarkable. But don’t assume that your reps can, simply on request, adopt a new set of polite behaviors, words, and tones so completely that it becomes authentic. It takes training and coaching to ensure that the result is not patronizing, superficial, excessively mannered or overly familiar.

Practice Off-Broadway. Don’t ask your reps to go straight from the classroom to the big stage. Provide them with time to practice and perfect the newly learned arts and skills by role playing with other colleagues.

Insist on personal style. Dozens of famous singers have sung Yesterday, imbuing it with their own personal style without changing a word. Scripting is about the right words. Getting your employees to add the music is different. It is about finding one’s own personal style. It couldn’t be less routine or robotic. Your reps need to be told: “Every one of you can deliver this script with sincerity. And when you do that, you won’t sound like anybody else. It will be you, at your best.”

Mr. Brown is president, co-chairman and co-founder of Los Angeles-based Cohen Brown Management Group Inc., where Ms. Lubahn is a managing director. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected].