Business Writing 2021-05-13 00:00

A Customer Service Expert's Advice: How to Write a Style Guide

how to write a customer service style guide

Have you ever wished you could upload all of your team’s knowledge to a new hire in a click, like a kind of job-experience Airdrop? Wanted every support ticket reply to have the same upbeat energy as the ones from your star team members? Seen a phrase that you’d scrub out of your team’s vocabulary if you could?

Well, we can’t promise a style guide will act exactly like magic, but used right in customer support, it can come close.

Emily Kinzig, UserOps Associate at NerdWallet, knows the ins and outs of style guides after both building from scratch and starting from an established brand guide at NerdWallet. We sat down with her to learn all about building a style guide for customer support teams.

  1. Why does customer support need a style guide?
  2. How to build a customer support style guide
  3. It all starts with your company’s mission: voice and tone
  4. What sections should you include for customer support?
  5. How to write style rules
  6. Provide your team with examples
  7. Keeping your guide updated

Why does customer support need a style guide?

You’re probably thinking: but a style guide covers things like tone and brand voice. Isn’t that a marketing thing?

It’s true, marketing departments often use style guides to keep the company’s voice consistent in ads. But wouldn’t that same consistency be great to extend to your customer service team too? Leaving your customer with a seamless experience even after they’ve purchased builds brand trust and loyalty.

Not to mention your style guide can serve as a training tool for new hires. “It helps them learn the language of your company,” Emily explained. “Plus, you can show the new hires situations they might run into on the job so they’re not starting from scratch when they pick up their first ticket.”

So if you’re sold on building a style guide specific to your customer support team, where do you start?

How to build a customer support style guide

Like any documentation process, how you begin building a style guide for customer support will vary depending on company size, industry, and your team’s needs.

If you’re at a larger or more established company, a branding team may already have voice and tone guides laid out. In these cases, it’s helpful to involve someone who works with the marketing or branding department to ensure your guide aligns with the rest of the company.

But, if your company doesn’t already have a style guide, you can create one, either with the help of your marketing and/or sales department or just for your team. Let’s get started.

It all starts with your company’s mission: voice and tone

There’s a reason most great style guides start by laying out the company’s mission. It reminds readers that the style guide isn’t just a bunch of rules. It’s a blueprint for how the company communicates.

Consider these excerpts from great style guides:

MailChimp Style Guide

  • “We treat every hopeful brand seriously. We want to educate people without patronizing or confusing them.” — Mailchimp
  • “As a brand we want Help Scout to feel approachable, full of personality, and always evolving to better connect with people.” — HelpScout
  • “Our goal is to fully understand the needs of the other person (customer, user, reader, listener) and to deliver delight, assurance, direction, or love, as appropriate.” — Buffer

So think of your style guide less as a series of points on grammar mechanics and more like documentation of your company’s personality. You want this to be a guide people want to read and want to share. “Think about what your company is like. Are you formal or casual? More fun or more serious?” Emily suggested.

Make sure not to skip these questions—they affect every line of your guide. If you’re not sure where to start, check out Content Marketing Institute’s fantastic post on writing style guides for more on setting the right tone.

Once you have your section covering tone and voice definitions, you can move on to the nitty-gritty of the guide.

What sections should you include for customer support?

Take a quick glance at any of the “holy grail” style guides out there. You’ll find yourself overwhelmed by the vast number of categories you could include.

So instead, start small to cut down on the overwhelm.

First, think about the rules your team automatically accepts as a “yes.” Then, think about the hard “no’s” for your team. Those are your starting blocks for building rules.

From there, you might outline basics of working with customers in a section like “Communication Tips” or dedicate an entire section to “Phrases to Avoid.” Sections on inclusive language and accessibility also help ensure your team can speak to the widest audience possible. And if you’re in a tightly regulated industry or have necessary disclaimers, a compliance section can keep your legal team happy.

Don’t be afraid to get creative. And, since certain style guides come with a Creative Commons license, know when to borrow from others rather than reinvent the wheel.

How to write style rules

No matter what sections you decide to include, how you write your rules can have an immense impact on your guide’s usability.

In customer service style guides, rules are less likely to relate to mechanics—like whether to use the Oxford comma—and more likely to provide guidance on interactions with customers. Scenarios like whether your team refers to a customer as a “user” or a “member,” how to answer common questions, and how to say no to a customer.

“So you want to explain the ‘why’ behind a rule,” Emily advised. “Tie it back to your tone and voice guidelines. It’ll help your team understand how to personalize messages while still making it sound like it’s from your company.”

For blanket statements, don’t forget to point out exceptions either. “I’m not a fan of ‘I’m sorry’ in customer support because it can appear less than sincere. But there are cases where an apology is totally warranted,” Emily said. “We want to make sure when we say ‘I’m sorry,’ the user knows we mean it.”

Provide your team with examples

One of the most powerful things your style guide can do is illustrate rules with examples.

NerdWallet’s sample section showcases both what to do and what not to do. “We think of it like getting into a Goldilocks zone. On one end, we might have a sample that’s sort of stiff and stilted, too corporate for us. On the opposite end, we might have a ‘surfer dude’ style response, which is too casual. Then we’ll show an example that’s ‘just right’ for us,” Emily explained.

It also gives your team the opportunity to see that your style rules are a framework—not a cut and dried set of requirements. Plus, the examples section can provide some great scripting for tricky situations. So your new hires are never starting from zero, and your seasoned team members always have a reference to fall back on.

Keeping your guide updated

Once you have your guide written, keeping it updated is another beast entirely. Especially in the hyper-connected internet age, language changes fast. Your style guide will need to keep up.

Here’s where a system comes into play. At the minimum, create a recurring “update style guide” task within your team’s project management tool. Or, you can use a more sophisticated solution with automation for reminders.

For your timeline, it’s best to have someone examine the guide quarterly. But if you’re a small team squeezed for time, a bi-annual review will work too. If you’re part of a larger company with a dedicated branding unit, you’ll likely need to tag-team guide updates with a member of the branding team so you’re up to date with recent changes.

Try to examine the guide with fresh eyes each time you run a review session. “It’s easy to fall into this pattern of mechanically checking things off the list,” Emily said. “But you really need to think about whether those rules are still serving your team.”

Ultimately, failing to update your guide may cost you your team’s trust and interest in the resource. And team trust isn’t something that’s easy or quick to win back. If you update your guide regularly, you’ll save time in the long run.

Now that you’ve written your guide and know how to keep it up to date, there’s the next task: implementing it. Feeling overwhelmed by the process? Not to worry. Part two of this series, How to Implement Your Style Guide, has you covered.

Learn how to implement your style guide without the headaches:

Implement Your Style Guide with ProWritingAid

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