How to Create an Effective Email Voice and Tone Guide

Is your business communicating with email the right way? Here's how to ensure all email is the best reflection of your brand with a voice and tone guide.

If your company has grown to a point where more than one person is handling emails from customers, that’s a good moment to create a voice and tone guide. This will be a component of your overall company style guide, which covers every element of how your company communicates with customers, expresses itself online, and speaks about your products and services. That is a much larger document to tackle, so today we’re just focusing on email.

Why you need an email voice and tone guide

Think of the emails your team sends as part of your company’s “brand voice.” Every communication — even the most routine one — is part of your company’s overall presentation.

An email might seem less important than, say, a post on your company blog or the copy in a display ad, but emails contribute just as much to your company’s reputation. This is where a good style guide makes a huge difference. It helps ensure that your customers have a consistent and positive experience with your company.

Your voice and tone guide is a document that everyone in your company can use, but the members of your team who work directly with customers will especially benefit from it. A good style guide also makes integrating new hires much easier, as they start with clear expectations of what their communication style should be.

How to create a voice and tone guide

It’s not difficult at all to create a voice and tone guide, and your whole team can participate in the process. Here’s how you do it.

1. Know the difference between voice and tone

It’s best to start by defining these two terms since they mean different-but-related things. 

Voice

The “voice” component is an expression of your company’s culture. Do you have a casual environment or a more formal one? Does your team communicate with customers about serious matters, like bank accounts or insurance?

Or are you talking to customers about more fun subjects, like vacations or pets? 

Does your team call customers by their first name, or “Ms. Smith” or “Mr. Jones?” Does your team tend to joke around with customers and use slang terms, or is a more serious demeanor more important to establishing trust?

All of these ideas are elements of your company’s overall voice. It’s best to come up with three to five words that describe the personality your company wants to share with your customers? Your list of voice qualities is the start of your guide. For example, maybe your brand and organization like any communication to consider the customer first, your voice qualities may then include:

  • Positive
  • Inclusive
  • Empathetic
  • Proactive
  • Personable

Tone

Tone, on the other hand, is a secondary element of voice. Your company’s voice should stay consistent no matter the situation. But the tone of an individual email might vary based on what it’s communicating, while still retaining the core elements of the company’s overall voice.

Here’s a good example: Let’s say you run a software company. The company’s overall voice is friendly and straightforward and always aims to educate your customers on using your product. You can use elements of that voice to write very different kinds of emails, such as:

  • Thanking a customer for the nice review of your product they shared on their social media channels.
  • Explaining to a customer why the refund they’ve requested is outside the scope of your refund policy.

The language you choose might be a little more bubbly in the first email and a little more serious in the second, but both emails can still be friendly, straightforward, and educational. You’re keeping with the company voice, even as your tone shifts a little for different situations.

2. Know your audience

The next step to building your voice and tone guide is to take a look at your company’s customers and get a sense of who’s receiving all those emails your team sends. If your company has any customer personas, those are a great resource. You may also want to spend a little time looking through some email history for insight. In either case, you’re basically trying to answer these questions:

  • Who, specifically, are we emailing? Who is our primary customer?
  • What needs of theirs does our company fill?
  • What would they like to hear from our company?

Let’s say, for example, that your primary customers are parents of young children. What are some of their needs, as a customer group? They’re likely to be short on time and potentially busy and distracted. They would probably like to feel that your team likes children and understands the demands of raising them.

So, with that perspective in mind, you may approach email communications with these customers differently, such as:

  • Keeping emails short and clear, so they don’t require much time or focus to read.
  • Limiting the number of questions you ask a customer in any one email, so they won’t have to spend too much time on their reply.
  • Remembering the names of your customers’ children, so they can add mentions into emails, like, “I hope you and Logan have a nice summer break!”

The more you understand your customers’ needs, the more cohesive and useful your voice and tone guide will be. 

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3. Establish your customer service values

This part of the process can be a fun team exercise. Now that you’ve thought about the customers who receive emails from your team, it’s time to explore what your team believes its values are as a customer service group.

Gather your team together in an area with some open wall space. Give everyone a pad of Post-It notes and a marker. For the remote teams out there, you can do this same process over a Zoom call with an open Google doc. Now, ask the group to think about their own experiences as customers.

What qualities make a customer service experience positive for them? What makes a good customer service agent? Have everyone start writing down their answers to these questions, trying to keep to one word per answer as much as possible. Stick the Post-Its to the walls (or add them to your open doc) so everyone can see them.

Hone in on service values that matter most

Now, work with your team to move all these notes around, arranging them into groupings of similar ideas. You’ll usually identify a number of key themes that way. Or as an alternative, you can also use an online word cloud tool to enter all the answers individually. The resulting cloud will show you which ideas were most prominent for your team. Above is a word cloud our customer service team came up with using this same exercise.

Once your team understands its customer service values, you can combine those with what you know about your customers’ most important needs — and then you’re ready for the final step in creating your voice and tone guide.

4. Create examples for reference

As the last step, it’s time to set out some specific examples of email expressions that illustrate your company voice and tone. This will be the most visceral section of your guide, and the one that will really help your team adopt the guidelines.

The best way to explain this section is with an example. So let’s say you run an online retailer of professional women’s clothing. You work with customers across a wide range of sizes. You’ve done this voice and tone process, and arrived at a company voice that’s positive, personable, and inclusive. 

Now, what are some common questions your customers ask your team? If you already created an FAQ page then you likely know what these questions are. If not, ask your team what questions they typically see come through, review email history and if you’re a new business, check competitor sites for ideas.

Customer response examples

With those common questions in mind, it’s time to start developing examples. For each customer scenario you come up with, write two sample email responses:

  • One that represents the way you don’t want your team to address the customer
  • One that represents the correct voice for your company and the correct tone for the situation

For our retailer example, that might look like this:

Email response order status example

Where is my order?

Wrong voice

“Your order is delayed. We don’t know when it will ship.”

Right voice

“I’m so sorry, it looks like the suit you ordered is taking a little longer than expected to arrive from our supplier. I know you need it as soon as possible, so I’ll be glad to follow up with you once I know the exact shipping date.”

Email response returns example 

How do I return this order?

Wrong voice

“You have to ship the item back before we’ll refund your money.”

Right voice

“I’m sorry that jacket didn’t work for you. We’ll be glad to process a full refund. All we need for that is to have you send it back to us. I’m emailing you a return label right now to make the process easier.”

Email response product availability example

Why don’t you have my size in stock?

Wrong voice

“We ended up selling out of that size, so you’ll have to choose something else.”

Right voice

“I checked our stock, and it looks like we will have another shipment of that item coming in, but it’s scheduled for a few months from now. I’m sorry we won’t have it sooner! In case it’s helpful, I selected a few alternatives that we have available in your size. I can also schedule an automated email to be sent out when stock of this item is back in so you know right away.”

You might want to get your team involved in building these examples. It can be as instructive to write something in the “wrong” way as it is to write it in the correct voice.

Sharing your new voice and tone guide

Depending on how your company communicates, there are a number of ways you might share your new guide with your team.

You can put everything in the form of a document, or maybe a slide presentation. (In fact, the examples above come from a slide presentation guide. It’s a nice, graphical way to present this kind of information.) Just make sure your guide is stored somewhere that all members of your team can access, like your company intranet, or a sharing tool like Google Docs or Slides.

If you have a new-hire training packet, it’s great to include the guide in that. And if you have a team or all-company meetings, taking a few minutes to go over the guide periodically helps keep everyone on the same page.

It’s also a great idea to create some email templates that your team can use as a starting point for responding to frequently asked questions. They’ll save you time, and they’ll also serve as a regular reminder of the type of voice and tone your team should strive for in every message.

Lastly, it’s a good idea to set yourself reminders to revisit your guide annually. As your company grows and evolves, your voice and tone may need updating.

Posted in: Company Culture Email

Diane Gilleland

Diane Gilleland

Diane Gilleland makes learning content for small businesses and creatives.

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