Every business, like every person, has a tone of voice. It can vary depending on circumstances, just like being in a bad mood can put an edge in your voice, whether you intend it to be there or not.

Unfortunately, unlike a teenager throwing a wobbly, a business won’t be easily forgiven for getting stroppy with a customer. And times have moved on from ‘Annoyed of Craven Arms’ pulling out the green biro to share their discombobulation with the weekly paper and its audience. Now it’s instant opprobrium courtesy of social channels that you need to fear.

It never ceases to amaze me what staff and even owners and managers believe they can get away with when communicating with audiences. The phrase “the customer is always right” might not actually be true, but I’ll argue until the cows come home that it should be the default starting point. Let them think they’re right, then delicately and skilfully move them to your position – but whatever you do, don’t insult them.

By insult I don’t mean only the obvious verbal assault, but even an inference given by the tone of an email or a sigh on the telephone can be taken as a grievous disinterest in the problem that is currently the centre of their personal universe.

It certainly wouldn’t be too off the mark to suggest that in these times the successful business person needs to add a bit of amateur psychology to their jack-of-all-trades armoury.

We’re talking about one of those oh-so-subtle but hard to manage problems. You can’t speak for every individual in your business, or write every email in your own personal, impossible-to-misinterpret style. Instead, the tone of the business needs to be set, to be laid down in no uncertain terms; rule one, day one. Then it has to be monitored and transgressions picked-up and dealt with straight away. Next it has to be reinforced, practised by everyone from senior management down and defined into the daily working practice.

Of course that all seems logical on paper and not so easy to achieve on the ground. It can be done though; I’ve seen it in action week after week, month after month, year after year with one of my larger clients, to the point where that firm’s customer and potential customer base have come to understand and respect that they will always be treated as intelligent human beings – and to repeat that fact in public forums to others. That’s a business which has its public perception nailed and works hard to maintain such a valuable asset.

It doesn’t take long for that reputation to begin eroding away though, especially with an itchy Twitter finger around every corner… I stood in a well-known supermarket recently and, along with many others, heard a manager berate a member of staff in pretty strong terms, right there in the aisle. At its simplest, that’s a poor manager demonstrating awful leadership and a lack of awareness. But in our heads, as customers, we extrapolate that into a new view of the wider management ethos. Maybe it’s not the smiley, happy organisation portrayed in the multi-million pound adverts? That’s instant reputational damage which is incredibly hard to fix (it could also be the next YouTube buzz…).

When you’re paying attention you find examples of this everywhere. The causes, of course, are many-fold and the cures hard to administer, but if you own a business, try to sit back and listen to your corporate tone of voice occasionally. You might be pleasantly surprised – or you might feel the urge to reach for the green ink.

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