How the passive voice destroys customer relationships

Passive voice in customer communication

The passive voice is rife in customer communication – here’s what it is, how to spot it and how to change your communication to make it customer-centric.

You probably haven’t noticed it surreptitiously pervading the emails your customer service representatives are writing to your customers, or the Twitter replies, or the financial demands, or the standard letters… but there’s a subtle grammar problem creeping into corporate communications that’s stealthily undermining your customer relationships right under your very nose.

That menace goes by the name of the passive voice, and it’s bad news for your brand. Here’s how to spot it, why you should avoid it like it had fleas, and how to produce customer communication that will strengthen your customer relationships.

How to tell when you’re using the passive

We’ll spare you a long-winded grammatical explanation, because there’s a very simple way to tell when you’re using the offending language. If you can add “by zombies” to the verb, you’re using passive voice. For example:

“the website will be taken down by zombies

“the charge will be applied by zombies

“your account will be closed by zombies

Try it next time you monitor your customer communications – you might be surprised how much zombie action your business has got going on, whether it’s charges being levied, notices being supplied or direct debits being taken.

So what’s so awful about the passive voice?

This scourge of corporate writing is a habit that many of us got into in our school essays when we wanted our writing to sound more highbrow. Unfortunately, while it may have impressed Mr Smith the Geography Teacher, it’s unlikely to impress your customers.

That’s because in this context the passive voice is the enemy of honesty and transparency – two virtues that customers rightly value highly in their interactions with brands.

The issue with using the passive voice isn’t just that it sounds boring and zombie-like; it’s that it distances you from the statement you’re making, and that can come across as disingenuous. Your customers may already be feeling that they’re being dealt with by some faceless corporate entity that doesn’t understand them; now, to add to your problems, your customers may even stop trusting you.

The passive voice is even more of an issue when answering customer complaints, as using it can make it sound as though you’re not admitting responsibility for what’s happened. It may be because your customer service team fears the customer “shooting the messenger”, but the wrong choice of words is sure to wind up an already irate customer.

For example, say a customer has written to your bank to complain because you’ve taken overdraft fees from their account and it’s put them into some financial difficulty. A customer service advisor might rattle off a robotic stock response such as:

“A charge is applied each time you go overdrawn.”

It sounds harmless enough, but look more closely: who’s applying this charge, exactly? Not the bank, this wording implies, but some mystical external force that the bank has no control over. But customers aren’t stupid – they know that it’s really the bank that’s taking their money. So why try to pretend otherwise?

How you should be writing instead

A good rule of thumb is to write to customers as though they were standing there in front of you. Just as if you were talking to them face-to-face, use natural, straightforward language that makes your meaning crystal clear.

A more honest and open wording in the above complaint example would have been:

“We apply a charge each time you go overdrawn.”

It may seem a tiny change, but switching to the active voice by introducing the pronoun “we” sounds more human and takes responsibility for whatever it is that’s made the customer unhappy. In showing a human side, the active voice also paves the way for a more empathic response that makes the customer feel that their concerns are being listened to.

So, to summarise: don’t write like a zombie – write like a human. You’ll find that customers value your honesty, and that they appreciate being treated as intelligent human beings.

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