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.
Published May 5, 2021
Last updated March 16, 2022
As a customer service agent, being a great communicator means everything. But your ability to communicate well goes beyond listening to what your customers and team members say. You also have to recognize how they’re expressing themselves and adapt your responses accordingly.
Understanding the various 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 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’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.
Finding 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.
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.
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:
- “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. 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 recognize the different communication styles, you must also have an understanding of how you tend to communicate with others. Identifying your 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 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 communication style with customers across channels
In most cases, you want to be assertive with customers—meaning, you want to be empathic but still direct. Assertive communication might look a little different depending on the channel you’re using.
How to be assertive over the phone
When communicating with customers over the phone, you must be good at thinking on your feet to form an appropriate response. Knee-jerk reactions and angry replies will only make things worse. Here are a few tips on how to speak assertively during a phone conversation:
- Remain calm and confident. It can be challenging to keep a cool head, especially when responding to angry and manipulative customers. But using a call script to guide your responses will go a long way in de-escalating tense situations.
- Don’t take negative comments personally. Always remember that an angry customer’s reaction has less to do with you and more to do with their current emotional state. Stay solution-orientated and positive, no matter what the customer says to you.
- Practice active listening. Show customers you’re truly paying attention by saying their words back to them. To ensure you understand what they need, ask questions to clarify details. This is particularly important when speaking to passive communicators.
How to be assertive on live chat
Communicating assertively via live chat requires strong writing skills. Author Leslie O’Flahavan provides some advice on how support agents can improve their writing in Clear, Correct, Concise Email: A Writing Workbook for Customer Service Agents.
- Develop probing skills. This means you must ask deep questions to get to the heart of what the customer needs. Although probing may entail some of the back and forth that usually occurs in online exchanges, you’ll be able to better understand and help the customer. Probing is a great way to get passive communicators to say more, too.
- Use quick and agile responses. According to O’Flahavan, the best chat writers are “fast, brief, and good.” You have to communicate a lot in just a few sentences. Focus on relaying the most important details, and cut out any superfluous words and unnecessary information.
How to be assertive via email
An email can easily come off as cold if the sender hasn’t framed the message thoughtfully. Empathize with your recipient and choose clear, compelling language to write an email that makes the customer feel understood and valued. Sending a prompt response can also go a long way in soothing an angry customer.
- Understand their pain points. Before responding, put yourself in the customer’s shoes and try to see the situation from their perspective. A passive or passive-aggressive customer, for instance, might struggle to articulate their concerns clearly in words. So, you might need to read between the lines to understand the underlying issues that they didn’t specify.
- Acknowledge the problem. In your reply, it’s important to address the pain point and then apologize if necessary. After this, move on to finding the customer a solution.
- Use an appropriate subject line. Writing the subject line in all caps or using negative words might seem aggressive to the customer. Keep it professional, short, and unique to the customer.
How to be assertive on social media
All customer interactions on social media have to be handled with extra care because the conversations are usually public. One wrong move can spiral into a social media firestorm. Protect your brand’s reputation by following these tips:
- Take the high road. You should never mirror the tone of angry customers who complain about bad service on social media—it’s a losing battle. “The business is never the perceived victor, even if they were truly in the right,” says Jay Baer, a social media expert. Always respond with empathy and do what you can to make things right with the customer.
- Follow the “Two-Reply Rule.” Baer also says support agents shouldn’t respond more than twice to a customer in one exchange. This prevents conversations from escalating. While you want to acknowledge a customer’s problem, it doesn’t mean you should put up with unrealistic demands or rude replies.
- Move the conversation offline. If you can’t resolve an issue out in the open, take the conversation offline and reach out to the customer privately. Because switching channels can be tricky, Baer suggests sending a private message on the initial contact channel.
How to be assertive in person
Unlike communicating online, communicating assertively with customers in person requires you to convey confidence through both non-verbal and verbal cues.
- Avoid slouching. When speaking to customers, stand or sit up straight. Looking away can make you seem uncertain and unreliable, so maintain eye contact during conversations, too.
- Adopt the right tone of voice. You don’t want to speak softly and sound timid, but you also don’t want to talk too loudly and sound harsh. Keep your voice at an even level, and express yourself with confidence.
- Listen to their complaints without interrupting. When interacting with passive communicators, make sure to ask more questions so you can get to the root of their problem.
- Stay patient and calm. Always keep your feelings in check, especially when speaking with more expressive customers—namely manipulative, aggressive, and passive-aggressive communicators. If the situation with an angry customer escalates despite your best efforts, make sure to involve your manager.
Ways to communicate more effectively with coworkers
As a support agent, you’ll be part of a bigger team working for a contact center, 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.
How to be assertive at work
Standing up for yourself and setting boundaries in the workplace might be uncomfortable, but this is an important part of assertive communication. The key is keeping your emotions in check during thorny in-person conversations.
- Communicate clearly and directly. When confronting a coworker, calmly point out what actions offend you or make you uncomfortable. Trust in yourself and speak confidently. Strive to remain solution-oriented, positive, and sensitive to the other person’s point of view.
- Avoid hedging sentences. Don’t sugarcoat or soften things; instead, say “will” instead of “could” or “should” to make your statement more powerful.
- Say no to ineffective tasks that take up valuable time. Pushing back might seem rude, but it is sometimes necessary in order to avoid burnout and getting taken advantage of. Politely express why you’re unable to take on a task or project, making sure to use “I” statements.
How to be assertive when working remotely
Working remotely can present major challenges, particularly when it comes to communication. While working outside of the office, it’s easier for passive-aggressive and manipulative communicators to include negative and harmful comments in an email or Slack message. Aggressive colleagues tend to dominate Zoom meetings, making it harder for passive communicators to contribute to discussions.
So, how do you handle these different styles while communicating virtually?
- Watch out for hedging language in your writing. The majority of remote communication is written, so you have to use clear, confident sentences when expressing your opinions over email or Slack (while still remaining polite, of course).
- Speak up. It’s easy to disappear into the sea of faces on a Zoom call, so try to stay visible by contributing to the discussion. Just make sure not to interrupt or speak over others—wait for your turn. When speaking, firmly state your opinion and look directly into the camera.
- Encourage balanced conversations. Especially if you manage a remote team, set clear expectations for online behavior and communication. During meetings, make sure you encourage everyone to participate. Aggressive communicators will most likely be the loudest voices, so you need to ask for contributions from all team members when possible. Asking open-ended questions will also go a long way in getting passive and passive-aggressive communicators to speak their minds.
Gather the tools you need to be an effective communicator
An assertive communication style is preferred in all types of situations and can help you improve your workplace relationships. But to make your interactions 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 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 personalize each interaction.