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Talk like a human: 7 phrases to avoid saying to your customers

By Emily Triplett Lentz · February 4, 2020
customer-support-communication primary img

If you work in a customer support role, you know the feeling of being treated like a robot, there to answer your customers' questions exactly how they want them answered. But in reality, great customer support requires empathy, superior communication skills, and a host of other markers of emotional intelligence.

A lot of it is about reading the room. There are of course some general rules of thumb to follow—namely, don't be a jerk—but each customer and each situation require a unique response. Here, we'll offer up some phrases that we think you shouldn't use when talking to customers. But as you review the suggestions below, remember to take them with a grain of salt. The most important thing is to match the tone of the person you're speaking to.

1. "I will"

Promises, promises. Customers want to hear what's being done, not what you're planning to do. If you have to document a request or loop in another team member, do it before you write back, instead of saying you'll take that action at some vague point in the future.

Great idea—I'll share that with the product team. I'll need to have a programmer take a look at this.


Great idea—I've added your suggestion to a Trello card where we track feature requests. I've looped in Stacie, our resident workflow expert, so she can take a look at what's going on.

Similarly, it's best to do something for the customer when you can, instead of asking them to do it themselves. For example, instead of walking them through the process of downloading an invoice, attach the invoice to the message and then tell them how they can do it themselves in the future.

Take care of things first, then reply—that way your customer can feel confident about what's being done.

2. "No"

Of course, sometimes you have to say no to customers. The issue is saying no without any context.

Maybe they want a feature that isn't on your roadmap (or isn't really possible). But think about the customer's perspective when writing your reply. They've taken the time to write in and explain a request or frustration, so make sure you explain your team's "why" too. Explain the reason behind the decision. Empathize. When people understand the "why," they're more likely to be forgiving.

Focus on what you can do, and find ways to soften any negatives. For example:

Hey, that's a great idea! While I'm unable to make any promises that we'll be able to add that because of XYZ, I've sent a message about it to our product team and we'll keep you posted if anything changes. They have your email address now and will reach out directly if there are any updates.

Also: offer alternatives if you can. When your product or service lacks what a customer is looking for, you still have the opportunity to generate goodwill by pointing them toward a workaround—or even a competitor.

The next best thing to giving customers what they want is making them understand that their ideas are taken seriously.

3. "You'll have to"

Telling a customer "You'll have to ... " or "I need you to … " is less than helpful—in fact, it's bossy.

By the time a customer comes to support for help, they're often already frustrated, confused, or upset. When resolving the issue depends on the customer taking action, refrain from giving them a checklist of demands. Focus on getting them in a collaborative mindset with language that lets them know you have their back.

Examples of negative and positive language
Reframe any directives using positive, collaborative language.

Remember, it's not you versus the customer. As Chase Clemons of Basecamp writes, "it's you and the customer versus the problem."

4. "Best, the Support Team"

While we all know to use the customer's name (or, if we don't have it, a friendly greeting like, "Hi there!") up top, remember that customers want to know who they're talking to. Think about how strange it would be if you got an email signed "A Customer."

Example of bad customer support email
Sign emails with a person

Ideally, you'll sign emails from you—the person handling the reply. If you're on a big support team, it can add some clout to send it from your head support rep. Anything other than the generic "team."

5. "No problem"

You may use "no problem" or "no worries" because your brand's voice is ultra-casual. But it's not the tone that's in question here—it's what the phrase implies. It makes it seem like the customer's request may have been a potential problem or worry. Your customers don't want to feel like they're a burden to you, and "no problem" can make it seem like they are.

"The problem with 'Not a problem' is its negative parts: not and problem," writes Lynn Gaertner-Johnston. "When it comes to tone, two negatives do not multiply to create a positive. 'Not a problem' has, at best, a neutral feeling."

If the classic "you're welcome" feels too old-school, "my pleasure," "happy to help," "certainly," or "sure thing" are solid alternatives.

6. "I can't"

Any conjunction that uses some form of "not"—can't, won't, don't, couldn't, shouldn't, wouldn't—can almost always be rephrased using positive language. "Please remember to return that form" assumes better intent than "don't forget to fill out that form." Some other examples:

I can't log in to your account without your permission. You shouldn't be seeing that error. You won't be able to access the premium features until you upgrade.


Is it ok if I log in to your account using your credentials? That's definitely an unusual error message! When you upgrade to the Plus Plan, you'll have access to those premium features.

Of course, sometimes these negative conjunctions really are the best choice for the message you want to convey. But when there's no risk of compromising your meaning, try to avoid those "not" conjunctions in favor of terms that make your overall message a more positive one.

7. "Your business is very important to us"

Steer clear of customer service clichés. When's the last time you heard "Your call is very important to us" and actually believed it?

Instead of telling the customer that their business is important, show them. For example, if you need to transfer someone to another representative, tell them who they'll be speaking to and why you're sending them to that specific person. Or if you need time to look into something before you get back to them, tell them exactly what you'll be doing in the meantime and when they can expect to hear from you.

Getting your team on board

It's not helpful to give everyone a list of words and phrases they're no longer allowed to say. And rote substitution is hardly the point anyway; it's more about understanding how customers might be interpreting these phrases.

Instead, begin by enacting some changes yourself. This list is a start, but there are tons of resources about how to talk to customers, ways to phrase common customer service interactions, and the like. Work through any saved replies or snippets you frequently use to audit for phrasing you could improve.

Your help desk's reporting features can help you monitor your progress, and once you have metrics to show for it, you can bring that to your team. At that point, you might consider creating a support lexicon of phrases for your team to live by.

Eventually, using the right words for the right context will become second nature.

All images are reproduced from the Help Scout blog.

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