SMPL Q&A is a new blog feature, in which we interview our experts on all things relevant to branding, design, and simplicity. Recently, we spoke with Shelley Whiddon, director, brand communication, about “the language of service” and how brands can deploy this type of verbal strategy without just relying on classic tactics.

What is the service environment like right now and how does that impact the language of service?

Service—how it’s delivered and how it’s perceived—is always changing. Right now is an interesting time for service. Take a recent study showing that in an improved economy, like we’re currently experiencing, service typically suffers. Companies don’t need to fight for their share of business as much as in times of decline.

But on the other hand, social media has made it much easier for consumers to be heard. Companies know this, but many are still figuring out what that means for them. I’ve had personal experience with this. After two days of a no-show furniture delivery, made worse by bad customer service, I tweeted at the company. I was getting nowhere over the phone. No one I spoke with expressed empathy, an interest in helping me or an appreciation for my inconvenience. They were going through the motions. I felt like a number. On Twitter, I had a voice. I could talk directly to the company (well, probably a marketing intern). And I heard back from the company immediately.

There were simple words or shifts in tone by customer service that would have left me with a very different impression of the company. I would have still been waiting for my chair, but I would have felt valued as a customer.

How does trust in business impact service and the language of service?

It’s not news that there are trust issues. Consumers are still wary of many industries. This makes the language of service so much more important. How you connect with customers and how you support them can help bridge gaps in trust. In addition, people trust third-party information more than information directly from the company. So those online reviews and social media posts that I mentioned can have a real impact on your bottom line.

The industries where trust issues are most significant—such as financial services, healthcare or insurance—are also industries where communication and language have been slow to evolve. These industries have very entrenched ways of talking to customers, and the words they use don’t do much to help alleviate trust issues.

So what should service language sound like?

Each company needs to adjust its service language to fit their brand voice and overall brand strategy, but there are some general principles to guide language strategy.

  1. Sound like a human

Too often, customer service reps or email responses sound formal and robotic. You’ll better connect with customers if they feel like they’re talking to another human and not just a company representative. Use contractions, choose simple words and stop with the industry jargon. Seriously, just stop.

This can also be as simple as saying “I.” Rather than a “Royal We” that feels like a faceless corporation on the other end of the call or email, “I” feels like there’s someone who has my back.

  1. Make it personal

No one wants to feel like a number. When we choose to do business with a company, we want to feel valued as an individual. Show customers that you know them—“I see you’ve been a customer for 10 years…” or “How has the mid-century modern chair you bought last year worked out for you?” It may seem gratuitous, but now the customer feels like she matters in this conversation.

Service should also be all about the customer. Don’t take up time with scripted statements about how rigorous Company XYZ is about product and service quality. Show by delivering quality service.

  1. Express empathy

This one can be tough for companies, but it’s so important for (re)building trust. Listen to customers. Show that you’ve heard them. Make them feel understood. “I’m so sorry that happened. That must have been frustrating. Let me see what I can do to get this fixed for you.” Even when the outcome isn’t what customers had hoped for, they appreciate feeling understood. And that’s good for the relationship.

  1. Be an advocate

Being an advocate really is a result of the first three principles. When a customer service rep approaches a conversation like a customer representative rather than a Company XYZ representative, their tone and word choice shift. They sound caring and take ownership.

  1. Stay positive

Focus on what can be done rather than what can’t. A solution is what the customer is after—not excuses.

Are there any misconceptions about the language of service?

Service means so much more today than just a call to customer service when there’s a problem. Customers associate “service” with virtually all touch points. So the right language of service and tone must be consistent in marketing materials, email outreach, web copy, and customer service conversations.

Shelley Whiddon is director, brand communication at Siegel+Gale. Follow her on Twitter: @slwhiddon