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Article 13 min read

The 5 communication styles customer service agents need to know

The differences between communication styles often cause a lot of undue stress. Here's how to navigate them and create stronger relationships with both coworkers and customers.

By Stella Inabo

Last updated July 29, 2021

As a customer service agent, having great customer service communication means everything. But your customer service communication skills go beyond simply listening to what your customers and team members say. You also have to recognise how they’re expressing themselves and adapt your responses accordingly.

Understanding the various customer service communication styles can help you improve your relationships with customers and colleagues alike. After all, the ways in which you communicate with others gives you the power to create meaningful connections. Using the appropriate customer service communication style to navigate difficult conversations can make the difference between satisfied customers or coworkers and people walking out of the door.

In this guide, you’ll learn about the most common communication styles, how to identify them and actionable tips on how to adapt your style to specific situations in customer service.

The 5 workplace communication styles

There are five major types of communication styles: assertive, aggressive, passive, passive-aggressive and manipulative. The assertive style is considered the most effective and healthy way to express yourself in a professional setting, no matter the circumstance. Read on to find out why.

1. The assertive communicator: straightforward and tactful

Assertive communicators are polite, direct and honest. They can clearly and confidently express themselves, stating their thoughts and feelings without fear or disrespect. They usually speak in a calm voice and maintain eye contact in a face-to-face conversation, too.

They embody the two-way nature of good customer service communication skills. They’re not only great at communicating, but also at listening. They take the time to understand people with different viewpoints, which helps ease tension. Even during a disagreement, assertive communicators listen to you without interrupting and acknowledge your opinion before moving on to state theirs. They also use “I” statements to avoid sounding accusatory.

Assertive communicators may use phrases like:

  • “I understand your point, but have you considered…”

  • “I believe the best way to move forward is to…”

  • “I would prefer not to…”

2. The aggressive communicator: bold and brash

Aggressive communicators are very vocal about their moods and opinions, often using antagonistic language to express themselves.

Using customer service communication skills to find a middle ground with aggressive communicators can be challenging. In disagreements, these types of communicators often become defensive and talk over others. Unlike assertive communicators, they are less likely to listen to the opinions of others.

Aggressive communicators may use phrases like:

  • “I am right and you are wrong.”

  • “Let’s do things my way.”

  • “Because I said so.”

3. The passive communicator: meek and avoidant

Passive communicators are afraid to rock the boat. They’re so scared of conflict or confrontation that they avoid expressing their opinions and needs. Unlike aggressive communicators, they’re apologetic even when they’re not at fault. Passive communicators may say self-deprecating things about themselves too.

It may take a different customer service communication skills approach, as dealing with passive communicators can be frustrating. They rarely say what they’re thinking or feeling and, in difficult conversations, they agree with the dominant opinions or take the easier route by choosing not to take sides. But below their placidity lies frustration from their needs not being met, leading to pent-up resentment and miscommunication.

Passive communicators may use phrases like:

  • “Never mind.”

  • “It doesn’t really matter.”

  • “I don’t care one way or the other.”

4. The passive-aggressive communicator: underhanded and sarcastic

Similar to passive communicators, passive-aggressive communicators find it difficult to reveal their true feelings. They use sarcasm as a tool to avoid confrontation. They also tend to withdraw instead of asking for help in difficult situations. All tricky to handle without good customer service communication skills.

Because they don’t assert themselves, passive-aggressive communicators express themselves in subtle and indirect ways, like missing a meeting to avoid a certain team member. When they do speak out, they typically brush off issues instead of addressing them.

Passive-aggressive communicators may use phrases like:

  • “Whatever.”

  • “If you really want to…”

  • “I thought you knew…”

5. The manipulative communicator: clever and cunning

Manipulative communicators use their words to influence people – often in a negative way. A challenge for anyone’s customer service communication skills. They’re not always honest about what they’re thinking or how they’re feeling, either. When confronted with a difficult situation, they typically resort to using criticism or condescending comments as a way out. They prefer to remain in control of conversations at all times.

Manipulative communicators use phrases like:

  • “I didn’t say that.”

  • “Stop overreacting.”

  • “It’s not my fault.”

Identify your communication style

Communication is a two-way street. Aside from knowing how to recognise the different customer service communication styles, you must also have an understanding of how you tend to communicate with others. Identifying your customer service communication style can help you improve the quality of your connections with team members and customers.

Read the following customer support scenario and think about how you’d respond:

An angry customer calls in to complain about the email automation tool he just paid for. The customer claims the tool is complicated and isn’t giving him the results he wants. While trying to clarify his complaints, he becomes more distressed and makes disparaging comments about you.

Take a moment to consider how you’d react before reading further.

Compare your response to those that are typical of each communication style to see which you one tend to use.

  • Assertive response: “I’m sorry you’re dissatisfied with the tool, but I can only resolve your problem if you speak calmly.”

  • Passive response: “I’m not sure I can help you.”

  • Passive-aggressive response: “That’s not my responsibility.”

  • Manipulative response: “So, what do you want us to do about it?”

  • Aggressive response: “I’m trying to help you, but you’re not letting me speak.”

The assertive customer service communication style is recommended when responding to customers, whether they’re angry or calm, because it shows you’re an empathetic and active listener. You acknowledge the problem so customers feel validated and heard while also clearly and confidently stating expectations.

If the assertive style doesn’t come naturally to you, don’t worry. There are ways to adjust your aggressive, passive-aggressive, passive or manipulative patterns to communicate better with customers and colleagues alike.

Ways to improve your customer service communication style across channels

In most cases, to improve your customer service communication skills you’ll want to be assertive with customers – meaning, you want to be empathic but still direct. Assertive customer service communication might look a little different depending on the channel you’re using.

Ways to communicate more effectively with coworkers

As a support agent, you’ll be part of a bigger team working for a contact centre, and (just like with customers) you’ll want to communicate assertively with colleagues. Using assertive communication helps you appear honest and transparent, set boundaries, handle conflict and navigate difficult conversations.

Gather the tools you need to be an effective communicator

An assertive customer service communication style is preferred in all types of situations and can help you improve your workplace relationships. But to make your customer service communication skills even smoother, it’s also important to understand the communication style of others, especially those of your customers – you don’t want to lose a loyal customer because of a communication breakdown. Learning how customers interact with your business can help you use your customer service communication skills to respond to them in a more appropriate and effective manner.

To enhance conversations and create stronger connections with your customers, use CX software like Zendesk Suite. Zendesk not only makes things easy on your customers, but also sets customer service teams up for success. Agents can access a customer’s history, data and insights while assisting them on any support channel – empowering them to personalise each interaction.

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