How To Speak Your Customer’s Language

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In any kind of written communication with customers, voice and tone are important, whether it’s an email blast, direct mail or your website’s “error” message. While marketers have long been aware of the difficulty of accurately conveying tone through the written word, thanks to the rise of texting and instant messaging, we are ALL now aware of the potential for miscommunication due to tone. Everyone has gotten a text from a friend that was meant to be friendly and innocuous, but something led us to believe otherwise—was that “FYI” supposed to be informative…or sarcastic? Even the simple (and grammatically correct) act of placing a period at the end of a text message can be interpreted as rudeness. Here we’ll offer up a few tips on defining and tailoring your tone and voice, and look at some all-too common tonal mistakes.

Don’t Talk “At” Customers, Talk WITH them

I had a friend in college who would talk AT me. He wouldn’t react to what I said—he would just keep moving forward with his rant. Even WHILE I was talking, I could tell by his eyes that he wasn’t listening to me, not really: he was just thinking of what he would say next. Instead of reacting to my words and having an organic back-and-forth, he would just be making a canned speech, essentially.  Often his “responses” to my observations had nothing to do with anything I had said—they were just a direct continuation of what he’d said before.

Advertisers make this tonal mistake, too. It’s a bit of a cliche, but don’t talk AT people, talk TO them. Customers want to feel you realize there is a real person on the other end of the screen/phone. Although I love Volkswagen’s modern campaigns, let’s unearth an ad from way back in 1980 to see an example of ad copy making the same mistake my friend did.

First of all, there are an awful lot of words. It’s quite a bit to read for a magazine advertisement, and the blocks of text make me feel like I’m studying (ugh). The tone is so boastful, and the tagline of VOLKSWAGEN DOES IT AGAIN is so smug and self-congratulatory, it’s a turn-off. This ad comes across as an aggressive monologue, and it’s a good example of an ad that is talking at us, not to us.

Choose a Tone and Stick To It

How to settle on the proper tone? The last thing you want is to adopt some trendy, jive-talking flavor-of-the-month slang, especially if it has nothing to do with your product, company, or values. Sounds obvious, but first we must identify what’s important to you in order to make a decision. So what is your company all about (besides making money, gang)—what do you want your brand’s “personality” to be? What is your mission statement, or “core values?” At first, just try to boil things down to two or three keywords. A technical support company may want to convey that they are “dependable” or “knowledgeable.” An organic smoothie hut might go with “purity,” “honesty” or “nourishing.” These words should be the primary factors informing and shaping your voice and tone.

It’s also important to consider how formal or informal the tone will be. A more formal approach is direct and to the point–it uses correct grammar, spelling and punctuation, and minimal personal asides or jokes. This is for when you want to convey a sense of no-nonsense, hardworking professionalism. It works well with legal services, insurance, and with pharmaceuticals–in short, things people don’t want to joke around about. It can also impart a sense of authority for high-end (AKA high-priced) goods or luxury services.

An informal tone can ignore some grammar rules, crack jokes, and generally allows more creative freedom. When you need to come across as more friendly and likable, adopt a more informal tone.

Keep it totally consistent—remember the old saying, “familiarity breeds trust.” The more familiar and consistently recognizable your voice is, the more your customers will trust you. ALL of your communications should have the same voice, and that means that all of your employees should have a basic understanding of it. If your tone is inconsistent in different markets, or the voices of the print ads and the e-mail blasts aren’t aligned, it will erode trust. However, it’s OK not to have your tone fully nailed down right away–allow some wiggle room for your tone and voice to grow and evolve naturally.

Here’s a simple exercise you can use to help pinpoint your values and tone. Imagine you could have ANY celebrity at all be your company’s spokesperson/shill. Who would it be? Why? Far from just daydreaming about possibilities, this can help you better identify what it is you’re trying to achieve. WeightWatchers has Jennifer Hudson, and she is a great match for what they are all about: she’s an inspiring, motivating figure (she won an Oscar at age 25) while at the same time projecting youthfulness, and she embodies the goal of the company: she follows the plan, sticks to it, and we can see the results. She’s a walking fulfillment of the company’s promise to help people make better diet choices, and thereby improve their lives.

Now take a look at this 2009 TV spot for AT&T’s 3G laptop card.

AT&T // Mayweather from Leo Burnett NY on Vimeo.

It’s clear they’ve distilled their message down to one core value: “speed” (specifically, the speed of an internet connection).To clearly forge a connection in the minds of the viewer between the product and the value, they use Floyd Mayweather, a boxer renowned for the speed of his hands. He’s lightning fast/so is their 3G laptop card. The speed of his fists and the speed of the internet connection are now entwined together in the mind of the viewer–perfect. Slow clap for the AT&T ad people.

Of course not everyone can afford a Jennifer Hudson or “Money” Mayweather, but that’s not the point. Simply identifying who would be a good fit as a spokesman can help you refine what you want to say. In case of the AT&T spot, it also doesn’t hurt that the ad is funny, which brings us to…

Funny Biznass

Using humor in your daily interactions with clients can make their experience feel more personable. Look at how MailChimp, a popular email marketing service provider, informs users that their username of choice already exists.


It’s so much better than the robotic standard “This username has already been taken. Please select another one.” It cushions the sting of not getting the name you wanted with a little bit of humor. By tweaking the tone, even an annoying development like a customer being unable to get their first pick of usernames can be deflected and turned into a positive interaction. It’s funny, personable, and again, the language is talking to the client, not at them.

Another way MailChimp uses humor is with their mascot, Freddy the chimp. People love this smiling little guy–he pops up a lot when customers are using MailChimp’s services to “help” them send emails and broadcasts. An endearing and judiciously used mascot isn’t just for sports teams–it can strengthen brand identity greatly. But keep consistency in mind–do try to keep it to ONE mascot (we’re looking at you, Geico–is it going to be the gecko, the stack of money with googly-eyes, or the cavemen? PICK ONE ALREADY!).

A Quick Word on Slang
Using slang can be an easy way to give your voice a dose of personality. However, there are pitfalls involved, one being that slang can make your copy feel out of touch or dated. If your target audience is mostly one age or geographical group, then you can use “their” language…but if you’re attempting to reach a broader base, then niche-group slang can alienate potential customers. And for the love of god, be careful with teen slang, or whatever is is you perceive to be teen slang. Odds are, if YOU’VE heard of it, the kids probably aren’t saying it anymore. It’s very easy to appear “fake” using slang–after all, this is the language of subcultures, not of a corporate boardroom or a business. Also, public service announcement to everyone: stop using the word “bling” in your copy. Even ironically.

Politics and Current Events

Here we have a subway advertisement from Manhattan Mini-Storage.

These ads are striking because they dare to broach the subject of politics, and they do it using recent, ripped-from-the-headlines material. Ordinarily that’s a bit of a “third rail” in advertising, but in overwhelmingly liberal/Democratic New York City, it’s much safer to use–especially since the target here is people in NYC who float from apartment to apartment; in other words, young people, which makes their potential customers skew even further to the left. The impression this copy leaves is likely worth the potential hurt feelings of the occasional Republican on the subway (who is likely older or owns a home, and therefore isn’t in the market for storage facilities). So inserting politics and current events can certainly be done, as long as you’re very familiar with the territory and audience.

Now, I doubt many people outside of Texas even remember who Rick Perry is at this point, but at the time this ad came out in 2012, he was a Republican front-runner and almost nightly joke-fodder on The Daily Show, so it was topical, eye-catching and effective. Manhattan Mini-Storage changes their subway ads on a regular basis, so there’s no chance it can go stale. Of course, I would argue that simply ripping a joke from the headlines that has literally nothing to do with your business is a poor strategy, but that’s a different column altogether.

I think I’ll leave off with this quote from renowned British author, Evelyn Waugh: “A good letter is like a good conversation.” I would agree, but I also think you could replace the word “letter” with “ad copy.”

– Steve Hirst

 Steve can be followed on Twitter at @SKHMobileDisco.