Quarterly Publication of the Quality Assurance & Training Connection

Defining the Most Challenging Quality Standards

Tone, Vocal Quality, and Empathy

By Deelee Freeman, Call Center Training Associates

A major challenge call centers face with their quality program is to come up with clear and objective definitions for the communication skills that are required of agents who interact with customers on the phone.  These soft skills are often not uniformly understood or evaluated consistently in quality monitoring, and coaching can become confusing to the agent when trying to explain how to improve these hard-to-define customer interaction skills.   After all, we often don’t really understand them well ourselves.  Let’s take a look at three of the most challenging quality standards, along with some sample definitions in order to better identify behaviors that are needed to be an effective call center agent:   tone, vocal quality and empathy.


Just what is tone?  Tone is the use of pitch in language to distinguish meaning behind the words and express emotion. Pitch is the “higher” and “lower” of a sound. Tone mirrors your emotional state and physical well-being. If you’re feeling positive and healthy, your tone of voice will naturally sound upbeat, energetic, and enthusiastic. The problem is the normal stresses of handling customer calls throughout the day are easily reflected in the voice. It can be difficult to sound happy and energetic when agents are tired, stressed, or just having a bad day.

In call centers, tone is most important for conveying interest, sincerity, and feelings of good will.

The friendlier the tone, the more favorable the impression a customer has on both the service and the company as a whole.  And this contributes to greater customer satisfaction!

The next step is to create a quality standard definition that includes the behaviors that impact tone and describe the importance of this communication skill as it relates to the customer experience. 

Quality Standard:  Uses effective vocal tone to show sincerity, interest, and good will.

What? Tone is most important for conveying emotion and creating feelings of good will.  When we have a neutral or negative tone in our voice, we come across to the customer as sounding bored, tired, indifferent, detached, insincere, and uncaring.

How? Your tone of voice mirrors your emotional state and physical well-being. If you’re feeling positive, your tone of voice will naturally sound upbeat, energetic, and enthusiastic. The problem is the normal stresses from working in a call center are easily reflected in the voice. It can be hard to sound happy and energetic when you are having a bad day, but it is possible.  Awareness is the key.  Your Facial Expression can help you change your tone.  The shape of your mouth and the expression on your face will shape the sound of your voice.  When you smile (even when you are speaking on the phone and can not been seen by the customer), it changes the acoustics in the voice which results in a friendlier tone.

When?  Effective tone is important throughout the entire course of the call, but it is especially critical as you say the greeting.  The caller’s first impressions of you and the company will be largely impacted by your tone.

Related center goal:  An effective tone demonstrates professionalism and respect. The right tone engages the customer, builds rapport, and impacts the experience we create for the customer which results in customer loyalty.  Customer retention directly impacts our company’s bottom line and is one of our most critical company goals.

Vocal Quality

Other vocal characteristics include volume, pace, and inflection. Below is a definition that includes a description of all three.

Quality Standard:  Uses effective vocal qualities to connect with the customer.

How?  Applies appropriate volume, pace, and inflection to maximize the connection and interaction with the customer.

  1. Volume that is too loud or too soft can create a negative perception.  When we are too loud, it can come across as patronizing or pushy.  When speaking too softly, we can sound like we are unsure and the caller can lose confidence in our ability to help solve the problem.  You’ll need to adjust your volume when the caller gives you feedback and is struggling to hear you.
  2. Pace should match that of the caller, in most instances.  For example, when the caller is hurried, then quicken your pace.  Adjust your pace to speak more slowly when you detect confusion or when the customer is struggling to follow along.
  3. You should incorporate vocal inflection throughout the call to avoid sounding monotone and disinterested.  At the end of statements, a downward inflection helps you sound confident. Upward inflection used with questions signals to the caller when it is time to respond.

When?  Effective vocal qualities should be used consistently throughout the call and especially when responding to customer questions or inquiries.

Related center goal: Our company goal of customer retention is supported when we connect with the caller and show that we are interested and value his/her doing business with us.  When we use effective vocal volume, pace, and inflection, we create a more positive service experience and have a positive impact on customer satisfaction.


Simply put, empathy is acknowledging the customer’s emotions.  It reflects a concern for the customer’s feeling and perception of the issue.  Empathy is NOT feeling as the customer feels. For example, a customer is upset because he can’t log into web site to make his payment on-line.   An empathetic agent response would be:  “Mr. Smith, I am sorry you are experiencing problems logging into our site.  I know how frustrating this can be.  Let me see what I can do to help you quickly process your payment.”

Why is empathy so important? It can help get you and caller on the “same side.”   Empathy can calm the customer.  It can move the conversation along with less chance of the customer repeating the problem and associated emotion again and again.  When customers cannot see the concern typically shown by facial expressions, they need to hear the compassion instead in our voice.

Here is a sample definition of empathy.

Quality Standard:  Demonstrates empathy by acknowledging customer’s emotion.

How?  By acknowledging customer feelings, we let them know we care and that they’ve been heard.  Empathy can help move the call along to discussing solutions.

For example: Customer says, “I can’t believe I had to wait 20 minutes on hold just to talk to one of your service representatives and now you’re going to transfer me to another department!”

An empathetic response would be: “Sir, I understand how frustrating this has been and I’m sorry. Please be assured that our claims department will resolve your issue as quickly as possible.  May I connect you with them now?”

When?  Empathy should immediately follow a customer’s expression of emotion, whether positive or negative.

Related center goal: Customer loyalty and retention.  Empathy shows compassion and when our customers know we care, they are more likely to continue doing business with us. 

By defining these customer interaction skills in terms of behaviors, you will help agents understand what is required and provide them with useful suggestions to improve their customer service skills.

Enjoy this article?  Come to the QATC Annual Conference and hear more from Deelee Freeman of Call Center Training Associates!  Deelee will be presenting several sessions, including: Five Most Common Mistakes Made in Quality Monitoring: Technology to Process to People, Improving Call Soft Skills with Quality Monitoring, & Call Calibration: Achieving Quality Scoring Consistency.  Join us in Nashville in September!