The Quest for Professional Informality in Luxury Client Service

By Joe Pelissier on 3rd January 2020

Professional informality is about communicating with clients in a relaxed and natural way without compromising the professionalism and values of your brand. For every organisation there are different levels of professional informality. The history of the brand, the type of product it sells and the communication skills of the advisor are the main factors that influence it.

Professional informality is not about the occasional casual or conversational turn of phrase. As you will discover, it’s the result of being confident about the brand you represent and your ability to communicate with clients in a way that is natural and professional.

As a tone of voice style, it’s used subconsciously by advisors who are confident about not sounding over-formal and who know how to avoid appearing too casual.

Where you’ll find Professional Informality

You’ll find it mostly on social media, live chat and What’s app and to a lesser extent on email. This is because most client service communication via this channel has underlying seriousness that requires some level of formality. However, as we live in an increasingly informal world, telephone communication is another great opportunity.

As this article outlines, developing a professionally informal tone of voice has plenty of rewards as it brings the client, the advisor and the brand closer together. It often requires advisors with an excellent command of English, strong product knowledge and an enthusiasm for the brand they represent.

A lesson from New York

I was once working with a team from Nespresso in New York where I was struck by their willingness and enthusiasm to talk to clients in a natural and professional way. Underpinning this was a fluency about their brand, simple writing skills and a genuine desire to please.

There was a professional informality about their work and so the phrase stuck. Since then it’s become a style of client service communication I promote and encourage brands to develop.

Using Live Chat with Professional Informality

Here’s a Live Chat example from a luxury fashion retailer:

Sally: Hello. I’m Sally, your LTOV Client Advisor today. How may I help you?

Tina: What’s the difference between the LT diamond cardigan and and the LT diamond cardigan wool? One sells for £880 and the other for £100 and to me they look just the same – a little bit of dark shade with the wool one.

Sally: That is a lovely question! Let me have a look for you. It’ll be a few minutes.

Sally: Thank you for waiting. So our LT diamond wool cardigan in style #19297 X3Z041946 has a mother of pearl button front, which is a very precious material, and the fabric combinations are Aplaca and wool. The other model is cotton and wool.

Sally: Does that help?

Tina: okay for the look I want to archive, I need a more heavy jersey and long lengths. Which one will give me the look?

Tina: Yes, you helped.

Tina: Which one is the best buy?

Sally: Well, the Alpaca and wool option is very warm and perfect for winter as they are both very ‘heavy’ fabrics, I’d say. The cotton version is definitely lighter and good for spring or summer.

Tina: I think I will take the LT diamond cardigan for £ 880

Sally: It is a lovely model, either way! Is there anything else I can help you with?

It appears alarmingly simple. But that’s the point, although getting to a level in which you, as an advisor, can write in this way requires training and regular practice.

What drives informality

Previous experience and age influences professional informality. Those who have been taught to be polite and formal sometimes find it hard, as if sound informal is wrong. Others, especially younger advisors, respond well to a more natural and informal way of talking and writing. This is useful as it allows you to give it a more professional edge.

The prevalence of social media, millennial behaviour and the fact that everything is 24/7 contributes to making 21st century communication informal. This in turn influences how customers think about how to use a client service channel. However, do not assume that because millennials (1980 – 1994) are so prevalent that the older baby-boomers (1946 – 1964) are not informal too. All demographics are affected.

Social media makes all of us much more me-centric. Whilst in everyday conversations we talk about ourself 30-40% of the time, on social media this shoots up to 80%. It means that when we go online, we are in a heightened state of wanting to sort out our problems fast. This explains why the tone of voice of customers often use with advisors is abrupt and to the point. 

How Social Media influences professional informality

Watch ‘5 Crazy Ways Social Media is Changing Your Brain Right Now
and you will appreciate how social media impacts on your client’s behaviour. Not only on theirs, but yours and that of the young advisors on your team.

A more casual, informal society poses a challenge for a luxury brand. You need to maintain a sense of prestige and exclusivity but at the same time come across as contemporary, friendly and accessible.

It comes down to the quest for professional informality. That necessitates knowing exactly what your brand stands for and then defining how it should look, sound and feel like for clients.

The interplay between demographics, personality and culture

Professional informality sounds easy and obvious but for many client service teams it is hard. This is often due to mis-guided perceptions about how they should sound, the multicultural nature of their teams, lack of experience, inadequate training and no guidelines.

Talented advisors have the experience to recognise quickly signs that indicate the client’s:

  1. Demographic – age, background, social status
  2. Personality – friendly, aggressive, passive
  3. Culture – nationality.

The interplay between these allows them to understand who they are dealing as well as the extent to which they can communicate in a professionally informal manner. Often one will be more dominant the other.

Demographics and profesional informality

When it comes to audience demographics, these advisors are able to recognise:

  1. Traditional Clients – those who have a history of purchasing from the brand and who have a set of perceptions that go back many years.
  2. Generation X Clients – those aged 44 – 54, the often forgotten audience but who occupy senior positions and have spending power.
  3. Millennial Clients – those aged 25 – 40, who are possibly new to the brand and who are quite digital in outlook and expectation.
  4. Generation Z – those aged 15 – 24, who are super-informal, very direct not always that polite and single item focussed.
  5. Collector Clients – those who are passionate about the brand, like to feel close to it and who are looking for an excuse to buy more product.

Personality and professional informality

When it comes to personality types, it is the language and tone of voice that gives clues as to the sort of person you are dealing with. Sometimes with the teams I work with we identify the characteristics of different clients and then give them a summary nick-name. This is then becomes a high-level short-cut in terms of sensing the type of client the advisor will have to deal with.

In the examples below we have the client who:

  1. Is in a hurry and impatient and doesn’t have a very accurate style of writing – White Rabbit.
  2. Likes details, facts and figures. Regardless of the channel they are specific about the problem and what they need – The Scientist.
  3. Wants you to know who’s the boss and who is happy to take a superior tone – Duke/Duchess.
  4. Is is warm, friendly and chatty, they could almost be your friend – Happy Dog.
  5. Is hesitant and awkward, they don’t really want to be in touch and to inconvenience you – The Mole.

Using world leaders is also popular – knowing if you are dealing with a Trump, a Putin or a Boris.

This is an effective step in helping the advisor to gauge the kind of conversation they are about to have. With Scientists they must be specific and more formal, with a Mole offer more warmth and re-assurance. Advisors must also be mindful that one size does not fit all and to be adaptive at all times.

Culture and professional informality

Culture can be either low-context or high-context. Clients from low-context cultures are implicit and like detail, rules and procedures. Clients from high-context cultures are explicit which means there is a preference for implied or assumed meaning. The German, British and Swiss are examples of low-context cultures, the Arabs, Mexicans and Greeks are generally high-context cultures.

We have to be careful of generalisations but Chinese clients often dispense with a polite introduction to a conversation. They just give a reference number and say what they want. The Dutch have a tendency to be very direct about how they feel about something and the Italians make more effort to be warm and appreciative. Each culture has its own characteristics, with sadly the English increasingly becoming the the most rude and direct.

Locating the professionally informal sweet spot

Ideally, professional informality is that sweet spot where your brand values, brand image and client expectation overlap.

  • Brand Values are what your company stands for and reflect why it is different from the competition.
  • Brand Image is to do with the impression created by marketing.
  • Client Expectation is the perception formed in mind of the customer.

The article The Rewards of Connecting Luxury Client Service Tone of Voice with the Brand Image explores all of this in more detail.

The benefits of a professionally informal tone of voice

For me, a professionally informal tone of voice reflects brand confidence as well as the confidence of the advisor who works for it.

There is a natural flow to the communication which is good for business as it allows the advisor to:

  1. Establish a relationship with the client and possibly rapport.
  2. Solve issues more efficiently because there is a sense of trust.
  3. Make the experience enjoyable and memorable, both for the client and the advisor.
  4. Increase the chance of advocacy, as the client will share the experience with friends.
  5. Differentiate the brand from the competition.

From an operational perspective, you then have advisors who:

  1. Enjoy their work and feel empowered by it.
  2. Show colleagues what is possible.
  3. Raise the overall quality of service.

This also explains why some client service advisors are better at selling than others.

How technology affects professional informality

Soon after Bank of America had set-up its Twitter account a Follower sent it a blunt message. It tweeted, ‘Your tweets seem computer generated, like you’ve got no heart or soul.’ Ouch! You might not expect much more from a monolithic bank, but it nevertheless gets to the heart of what we expect from a brand.

When we talk to an organisation, we want to feel that we are dealing with real people. Humans who understand how we think and feel, not robots. Or, as Vasilis Dimitropoulos, Global Head of Client Service at Gucci puts it, “The more digital we become, the more human we have to remember to be.”

Speed / Efficiency VERSUS Feeling / Relationship

As Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Chatbots increasingly stake a claim on how brands can serve and interact with clients, the implication of this a balance between Speed / Efficiency versus Feeling /Relationship

  • Speed / Efficiency – the need to solve the issue as quickly and painlessly as possible, so the client goes on their merry way easily satisfied.
  • Feeling / Relationship – the emotional connection advisors make with clients, which at its very best results in them telling their friends about the experience.

By knowing the categories of conversation that clients want to have with you, it’s possible to determine where the emphasis is.

Whether it’s an interaction with a robot or a human that leads to a satisfied client, there is always a tone of voice implication. Problems arise if the speed and efficiency of the response confuses the client, so much so that they are forced to ask, ‘Are you a robot?’

If Speed / Efficiency is your primary goal be upfront about the tech and give your robots a tone of voice that is engaging. However, in the world of luxury retail, creating a positive feeling and establishing a relationship are what makes your brand distinct, special and memorable. That’s why the right tone of voice is so important.

Establishing a professionally informal tone of voice

To establish a professionally informal tone of voice takes time and involves five steps:

1: Understand what your communication and product values are and make a connection between them and the voice of the client service team.

2: Give your advisors the permission to use informal language in a professional context.

3: Create a library of agreed expressions and phrases that are professionally informal.

4: Monitor how professionally informal members of the team are and the results of this approach i.e. higher quality levels, more up-selling.

5: Agree guidelines on how and when to use emoticons or exclamation marks.

When you begin to put these steps into place you’ll find it quite liberating. Most significantly you’ll also find that the overall quality level of your conversations should start to improve.

Ending on a warm and memorable note

If your team can regularly end conversations like the Live Chat example below, it is not hard to work out what the client will think about the service you provide.

Nina: Is there anything else I can help you with while we’re chatting, Clare?

Clare: No, that’s great. Thanks for your help Nina.

Nina: You’re very welcome Clare. I hope you have a lovely day.

Clare: And you, I just wish it would stop raining!

Nina: It’s sunny here in Edinburgh, so I’ll send some your way!

Clare: Oh, that’s where I’m originally from. It’s usually the other way around and we get the sun in Cambridge!

Nina: What a small world. You’re right it’s normally the other way, but I’m going to hold onto this bit of sunshine a bit longer. It’s been lovely speaking to you Clare and I’m glad I could help you with that exchange. Have a lovely, hopefully sunny day.

All parties benefit from professional informality. Firstly, the client because they like and enjoy the client service experience and secondly, the advisor because they are being their natural self. Finally, the business as more clients become ambassadors and advocates of the service you provide

It’s a quest worth pursuing.

If you found this article helpful, why not read:

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