Tackling tricky comms with the right tone of voice

by Anna Fozzard

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With everything from energy bills to mortgage payments going up, so too will the number of people experiencing financial distress. At a time when consumers have heightened sensitivity around money, it’s very easy for financial services companies to miss the mark when communicating.

It is even more challenging to get the message right when sharing bad news. Banks, mortgage lenders, insurance providers and wealth managers alike all have to navigate chasing payments and rejecting customers that don’t meet their requirements.

When times really are tough, writing negative communications can make the person behind the keyboard wince – we know, we’ve been helping banks fine-tune customer comms. But in these situations, getting the tone right can make all the difference to how the message lands. Not only can the right tone keep customers on your side, but it can elicit cooperation.

What is tone of voice? A quick reminder

From the morning ‘hello’ to colleagues to group message replies, we say what we’re really thinking through tone. If someone says “fine, whatever”, we know it doesn’t mean they’re easy breezy and happy to go with an arrangement that works for everyone else. Why? Because our tone of voice reveals the emotions and intentions behind our words.

Financial services companies have a lot to gain by tapping into the nuances that tone offers. It helps you share bad news in a way that feels supportive, not scolding, and sympathetic, not apologetic. The word ‘nuance’ is key. Small changes can make a big difference to how a message comes across.

Balancing acts – too harsh

Here’s an example of how one word can change the whole tone of a sentence.

“It’s been two months now since you made your last payment.”

Including ‘now’ changes this sentence from having a neutral tone to feeling like a rebuke. This might be the intention, but it cancels out messages such as “we’re here for you” and can frighten people into burying their head in the sand.

Sometimes, overly formal or legal language can have the same effect. Phrases like “it has come to our attention that” and “late payment is deemed unacceptable according to the terms and conditions of your account” come across as a telling-off. The person receiving a letter like this is unlikely to feel comfortable enough to come forward and discuss their situation.

Even if you want to fight your corner, the tone you use can back people further into theirs. When the aim is to find a solution that works for both parties, all communications should aim to facilitate cooperation.

Balancing acts – too nice

The seesaw can dip too far the other way, though. Financial services companies know all too well that the word ‘sorry’ needs to be handled with care. But a tone can come across as apologetic too, like this:

“We know you mind be finding it difficult to make ends meet at the moment. The last thing we want to do is cause any more financial distress, but we need to let you know that you’ve missed a payment. We wondered if you would be able to settle your missed payment as soon as possible.”

This is an extreme example – but slipping into a regretful tone is very easily done when you feel a sense of guilt for sending a communication. The danger is that you come across as patronising or inauthentic.

When there’s a feeling of awkwardness, some communications use a bright, friendly tone to gloss over difficult messages. The result is using phrases like “ease the squeeze”, which can make light of a difficult situation.

Balancing acts – just right

When you have a difficult message to communicate, these three golden rules of tone will help you get the balance right.

1. Honesty first – people value financial services companies being upfront with them. Saying it how it is also shows respect for the reader’s intelligence. An honest tone avoids overexplaining and uses the active voice to take accountability.

2. Bring in some warmth – to show empathy without patronising, a warm tone demonstrates that you understand the reader’s situation. This language reflects how a person would speak and uses personal pronouns to stay involved.

3. Always aim for clarity – sometimes compliance requirements mean financial services companies need to use specific legal wording, which can jar with the empathetic tone in the rest of a communication. When this is the case, explaining what the statement means in your own words can help you connect with your reader.

Tone of voice is about more than creating a memorable brand. It can give you steer to convey all messages in the right way, from quippy marketing emails to difficult comms for customers. Our strategists can help you nail down the right voice for every communication.

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