5 Tips for Improving Online Communication with Customers (And 5 Traps to Avoid)

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May 18, 2018
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Online communication graphics

How many of you have ever argued online about politics, religion or lifestyle (or whether it's Laurel or Yanny)?

I bet that most of you did that.

What were your feelings after these discussions? Did you enjoy it? Did you and your interlocutors come to one conclusion? Or maybe you ended promising to yourself that it was the last time you took part in an online discussion?

The problem with online communication is that sure, it allows us to exchange words, but it also cuts nonverbal signs like the tone of voice, the use of gestures, posture, eye contact, and facial expressions.

Because of that, we often don’t understand each other. We also rarely give the message time to sink; we’re too eager to make assumptions and judge. In customer service, it’s a great communication problem.

Let’s discuss a couple of communication traps (and find ourselves guilty falling into them). Also, let’s see what we can do to make our customer service conversations better.

In this post, I’m going to present five tips to improve your online communication and how to make conversations with your customers successful.

Online communication traps

It’s a trap!
Admiral Ackbar

Communicating with customers reminds me of a minefield. If you’re not skilled enough (or don’t have enough experience), one word can ignite the fuse and turn a customer into a raging bull.

Among communication traps we fell into, there are two very important ones: assuming that we know what people want and judging their responses. These traps were described by Olga in her post about biggest communication mistakes we make in business, so I’ll skip this part.

But apart from the mentioned mistakes, that often make our communication ineffective.

Not understanding what’s the communication goal

Every communication has its purpose. For example, in customer service, your goal might be to educate your customers. You have to accept that you will receive the same questions over and over again, and calmly guide customers to enlightenment.

Those agents who get frustrated are not the best guides.

Not paying enough attention

Many agents are so swamped with work, that they do a couple of things at once. I understand it very well; when I was working in a call center, after every call I had about 30 seconds to write a note about customers’ problem.

Many times, I was finishing the note while speaking with another customer (and listening with half an ear). As you can guess, sometimes I was waking up not knowing what the customer’s problem is.


Upset customers are very difficult to handle. In most cases, they call when they are already mad, and tend to vent on the first person they reach - on the support agent. In such case, many people are tempted to defend themselves and the company.

While defensiveness to criticism is natural, unfortunately, it doesn’t serve the business. It pulls an agent into an argument about who’s wrong (obviously a customer) and doesn’t lead to an agreement.

Lacking empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand people’s emotions and (according to Daniel Goleman) it’s one of five components of emotional intelligence.

Thanks to empathy, we can get into customer’s shoes and understand that they are upset because something didn’t work for them.

Also, it helps to recognize the customers’ mood and adapt your communication style. It won’t let you use formal language and cheerful tone of voice when you hear a customer is furious.

Winner-loser perspective

The worst thing we can do during a chat with a customer is to treat the discussion as a battlefield. In customer service, there is only one goal: to solve your customer’s problem.

Sometimes though we can be tempted to prove something to a customer (especially if they are a pain in a neck). For example, if a customer claims that they hear "Yanny" and you spent a lot of time to prove that it’s "Laurel", it might be difficult for you to surrender agree with them.

As a result, you’ll get stuck in an endless dialogue about who’s right.

Business outdoor meeting woman and man with laptop

5 tips on how to have a better conversation

At this moment we are more polarized, we are more divided than we ever have been in history. (...) A conversation requires a balance between talking and listening, and somewhere along the way, we lost this balance.
Celeste Headlee

Now, when you’re aware what the most common communication traps are, let’s get to the part when you turn into a communication champion.

Recently, I watched a great Ted talk with Celeste Headlee, “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation”. It’s a great talk, but I’d like to highlight three of her tips and add two I think are crucial for customer service conversations.

#1. Don't multitask

One of the most important tips for effective conversations.

How many times have you listened to someone while checking your phone? Or how many times you were drawing, checking Facebook or planning your dinner while a customer was explaining their problem?

Guilty as charged!

When you talk or chat with a customer, try to be in that moment, don’t be half in and half out of a conversation. Sure, it might be difficult when your KPIs are set high and you’re flooded with work. But if you waste your time on non-work-related tasks, try to focus on customers to see the conversation improvement quickly.

Tip: You might want to use apps that help to stay focused at work. For example, there’s “Forest” app that grows trees in your phone when you’re not using it. I, as a social media addict, use Block Site, a Chrome plugin that helps me to stop the compulsive Facebook checking syndrome.

#2. If you don't know, say that you don't know

As I described in my post “5 Common Customer Service Problems,” many customer service agents are tempted to pretend that they know even if they don’t.

They think that when a customer contacts them, it’s their duty to respond as soon as possible, even if a case is thorny and a question is even worse. In such cases, agents respond carelessly, hoping to satisfy a customer with a quick answer (and get rid of them).

As a result, a customer who has received an untrue answer loses faith in the company (and their temper as well).

Seriously, when you don’t know something, just admit it. Wrap it up in clever “great question, let me check it!” and provide the right response afterward.

#3. Listen

Listening is probably the most important element of successful communication. And probably one of the most underestimated ones.

For many people “listening” means “hearing.” I hate it when I’m talking to someone, I can see they don’t pay attention, but when I confront them with it, they repeat my last sentence as a proof they were listening.

Listening doesn’t mean “hearing,” it’s the whole process that includes trying to understand someone’s point of view, listening without prejudice and paying attention to nonverbal communication (it’s all called deep listening).

#4. Be patient

Patience is one of the most important customer service skills. It allows to deliver better service and remain sane when you’re having a hard day. It also allows you to respond politely in a situation when a less patient person would lose their cool.

I’m the last person here to teach others how to become a better, patient person. However, the key to being patient in customer service is to understand that your customer’s intention is not to ruin your day but to get help.

You’re their hero in a shiny armor, you’re guiding them to enlightenment and if there was no you, they’d be lost like children in the fog.

Feeling any better?


#5. Use positive language

“I cannot do that, it’s against our policies.”

Sounds like a customer’s nightmare? Believe me, it’s also the nightmare of all customer service managers. The above phrase is the best thing to say if you don’t want to hear from this customer again. It’s also a great thing to show that your company is a soulless machine controlled by monkeys.

Your customers are interested in what you can do, not what you can’t do. Instead of saying “I can’t do that,” say “I’ll do my best to do that” (at least you’re trying, right?). Instead of saying “We don’t have this product,” say “I will let you know as soon as this product appears in our store.”

Positive communication rocks!

Woman coffee shop behind window smiling

Improve your conversations

Online communication isn’t easy, especially that there are so many rules you have to remember. Reply in a timely manner, talk the way customers talk, offer to help further, follow up…

Yup, there are lots of rules to remember.

But the good thing is, you don’t have to remember all these rules. In fact, you don’t even have to remember the rules I presented in this post.

You know why? Because the last thing I wanted to tell you is that all rules I presented can be described simply: talk with your customers like you’d talk with your friend.

When you talk with your friend, you don’t play games on your mobile. When you talk with your friend, you’re not afraid to admit that you don’t know something. You listen patiently. You always do your best to help them when they ask for help.

And that’s also the secret of successful online communication.

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