9 Well-Meaning Yet Harmful Phrases to Avoid with Customers

In honor of the 62nd GRAMMYs airing this weekend, I wanted to highlight a song nominee that’s become the unofficial anthem of dealing with difficult customers. Hate her or love her, there’s no denying the sing-songy catchiness of this T-swift track for telling loud, intolerant, and overly opinionated people to simmer. Yes, we’re talking about “You Need to Calm Down.”

Taylor Swift - You Need to Calm Down

While you’d never placate a customer by instructing them to “calm down” in the real world, singing along to this power-move melody offers a lyrical respite into an alternate reality where you say exactly what’s on your mind. The song’s poppy yet authoritative chorus strikes a chord for many Customer Success teams who face the wrath of angry customers emboldened by cancelable, finite subscriptions and a surplus of vendor options.

This got us thinking about the other not-so-obvious phrases you should avoid saying to a customer no matter how well-intentioned or deserved. While people might not remember exactly what you said, they’ll always remember how you made them feel. Are you sending subliminal negativity to your customers? You’ll actually have to read this one to find out.

Caveat: These aren’t hard-and-fast rules that are never meant to be broken. This is a reminder to pick your words wisely and be cognizant of your context. We all know it’s not just what you say, but how you say it (tone, inflection, volume), where you say it (email, chat, in-person), and who you say it to (status, relationships, roles).


1.) “Unfortunately,”

Unfortunately

This pessimistic precursor is intended to be a bad news buffer, which customers have grown to resent as a disingenuous copout to rejections and noes. Customers appreciate when companies are forthright when sharing undesirable information. “Unfortunately” is a dead stop that builds a mental wall between you and your customer and is hard to break down once spoken.

Even Apple put a ban on its use. Based on Apple employee interviews conducted by The Wall Street Journal, former Geniuses (Apple tech support) were told, “[T]o say ‘as it turns out’ rather than ‘unfortunately’ to sound less negative when they are unable to solve a tech problem.”

Be direct and create a positive reframe. Focus on actionable alternatives instead of succumbing to a passive “can’t-do” attitude. For example:

“Unfortunately, I can’t do that.”

Vs.

“Our product does not have that functionality. I submitted your feedback as a product enhancement request for our product team to review.”

2.) “Actually”

Actually

Deemed the worst word on the planet and the one word that will kill your credibility, the passive aggressive undertone and superfluous nature of “actually” win it a spot on this list.

“Actually is the word that you use when you’re actually saying, ‘You are wrong, and I am right, and you are at least a little bit of an idiot,’” explains Jen Doll in The Atlantic. Doll analogizes, “It is the ‘talk to the hand’ of the adverb community.” The ultimate 90’s diss that when served packs a flippant punch.

Inc. Columnist Eric Holtzclaw offers another reason to avoid this term that may suggest discrete phoniness. “The word ‘actually’ serves as a spoken pause, giving the presenter’s brain time to catch up and decide how to resolve the conflict in their mind between the question asked and reality,” says Holtzclaw. He warns that its use may indicate deception and should warrant further investigation.

A safe bet is to omit the word from your speech. Or as MailPoet suggests, “Instead use: ‘I just want to make sure we’re both on the same page.’ ‘If I’m understanding you correctly, the issue is…’”

3.) “But”

But

This b-word is often used to void, neutralize, or diminish the thought or sentiment that came before it. In Business Insider, Psychotherapist Katherine Schafler points out that we subconsciously translate this conjunction into “here’s the catch…” and put up our guard.

This three-letter word makes any communication “instantly adversarial” as Karin Hurt, founder of leadership consulting firm Let’s Grow Leaders, explains in Fast Company’s article on how “but” undermines our words. Hurt recommends using the “yes, and” rule of improv which she says, “[A]dds to the conversation and invites further discussion without negating what anyone has said.”

Hurt provides the below example to show the positive shift of this adoption:

“But, I thought we were in agreement here.”

Vs.

“I hear that you’re really concerned, and I’m a little confused because I thought we were all in agreement.”

Using “and” retains the meaning of the words that preceded it while still relaying a contrasting statement that follows.

Here’s an example that also shows how removing “but” can change your tone:

“That’s a great idea, but we should review the other options.”

Vs.

“That’s a great idea. We should review the other options too.”

Removing “but” doesn’t affect the perceived validity of or negate the fact that it was a great idea. Reviewing other options is communicated as a separate thought that’s independent of the idea’s evaluation rather than a consequence of it.

There is an exception. You can use “but” to soften the delivery of negative feedback by leading with the negative statement. This strengthens the positive statement that follows the conjunction (as it’s recognized as sincere) and lessens the blow of the negative, which regardless of its placement, is believed for its candidness.

For example:

“I understand your intentions, but this is not how we should map the data.”

Vs.

“This is not how we should map the data, but I understand your intentions.”

You don’t need to entirely scratch this conjunction from your conversations, but you should be more mindful of its use.

4.) “Simply”

simply

This word is often cited when giving technical advice or instructions to a customer. Pusher Technical Product Manager Jim Fisher advises on his blog that “Uses of ‘simply’ are an attempt to glorify the writer instead of comfort the reader. The subtext is ‘I the writer am smart. I find this simple. You should too. If you don’t, you’re stupid.’” Fisher elaborates that whether the subtext was deliberate or accidental, it’s always bad and you can improve your sentences by simply removing this subjective filler. There’s also a tendency to use “simply” as a synonym for “only,” which leads to ambiguity and is best to steer clear of to avoid subsequent misinterpretation.

5.) “Easy”

Easy

By the same token, you should avoid telling a customer something “is easy” because it’s easy to become numb to basic features and their subtle nuances when you’ve built muscle memory from daily product demos and trainings. It can also make the customer feel like they’ve asked a stupid question by implying that the answer is obvious. Instead, Freshdesk recommends using more encouraging phrases like “‘I hear what you’re saying,’ ‘I’d love to help with that,’ or ‘Good news, this seems to be pretty straightforward!’”

6.) “Just”

just

One of the most rampant fillers out there, this timid nudge dilutes your meaning and weakens your conviction. Its close cousin “Just so you know…” is a qualifier used to offset the perception of overt directness or combativeness, but is also extra cushioning.

7.) “No problem”

Most often wielded by Millennials and Gen Xers, this controversial phrase has grown in popularity over the decades. As an avid user of its acronym form and fellow Millennial, I anecdotally know that it’s said with good intentions to show that it was really no trouble at all to help the thanker. But its double negative composition may imply otherwise to those who interpret it as dismissive and halfhearted compared to the traditional “you’re welcome” or the more empathetic “my pleasure.”

Merriam-Webster breaks down its negative insinuation by explaining, “Someone so inclined could deduce that a reply of ‘no problem’ implies that one might have had a problem or difficulty with the task but in the end that wasn’t the case, and for that reason only they’re happy to have obliged.” However, they conclude that its usage rarely holds that connotation. For that reason, the decision to nix “no problem” is one that may be overturned as younger generations rise in the ranks.

You can also try these cheerful replies: “Anytime,” “I’m happy to help,” “You’re very welcome,” “You got it.”

you got it dude

8.) “We/Our”

we

According to a series of controlled studies by Harvard Business Review, company reps who used the singular voice (I, me, my) were perceived to act more in the customers’ interest than reps who used plural pronouns (we, our). They showed that “How can I help you?” outperformed “How can we help you?” Speaking on your own behalf, instead of the company’s, is a more personal approach.

There is a case for using plural pronouns to invoke inclusion between you and the customer. This is especially useful when working through customer issues. Take a situation where you repeatedly contact a nonresponsive customer to resolve a problem. In the example below, see how using “we” provides an objective observation and shares accountability while not alienating the customer as the foremost issue.

“I haven’t been able to get in contact with you, so I’m following up to make sure we resolve [customer issue].”

Vs.

“It looks like we’ve recently fallen out of communication, and considering [customer issue], I want to make sure we have all the details we need to resolve this.”

Using “we” makes customers feel like you’re in this together instead of feeling like they must figure it out own their own. Not to mention, no one likes being wrong. Phrasing accusatory statements with “you” or even implying that something is the customers fault, causes them to become defensive and only furthers the problem at hand.

9.) “I will”

i will

This saying came from an (awesome) example-filled Zapier article by HelpScout’s Emily Triplett Lentz on customer support phrases to avoid. In the post, Lentz explains how customers want to hear about your progress, not your plans for it. Instead of replying to a customer with what you’re going to do, Lentz recommends pausing and taking the action before you hit send on that follow-up email. She shows how using the past verb tense radiates proactivity in this example:

“I’ll need to have a programmer take a look at this.”

Vs.

“I’ve looped in Shay, our resident workflow expert, so he can take a look at what’s going on.”


Power Your Positivity

absolutely

This post has focused on the negative and what not to say, but I’d like to end on a high note. So, here’s a list of affirmative words to infuse positivity into your customer conversations:

  • Absolutely
  • Amazing
  • Certainly
  • Definitely
  • Excellent
  • Fantastic
  • Terrific
  • Exactly
  • Outstanding
  • Gladly
  • Great
  • Understand
  • Completely

What else have you found that resonates well with customers? 


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