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Talk Like a Human: 8 Phrases to Avoid Saying to Your Customers

Emily Triplett Lentz
Emily Triplett Lentz / August 10, 2017

Great customer support professionals know how to “read the room” and evaluate each customer within each specific situation to offer the right sort of response.

For example, even though we know that emoji and exclamation points perform well in customer emails, they’re best avoided when the customer writing in uses an overtly formal tone right out of the gate.

But that skill, like any other, can take a while to develop. Customer support is uniquely challenging work that demands unwavering empathy, superior communication skills, and a host of other markers of emotional intelligence.

In the meantime, it helps to keep a few tricks up your sleeve, and understand that the small things you say when talking to customers can make a big difference.

While there are several go-to phrases that improve your customer support interactions, there are just as many phrases that are best avoided. Comb through your customer conversations to make sure you aren’t inadvertently committing any of these faux pas!

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, versus saying you’ll take that action at some vague point in the future.

Great idea — I’ll share that with the product team.
Vs.
Great idea! I’ve added your suggestion to a Trello card where we track feature requests.

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.

I’ll need you to log in to your account page, hit the “invoices” link on the right, and select the option to download the invoice you need.
Vs.
I’ve attached that invoice for you here! You can also find all past invoices on your account page.

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

Pro tip: Keep the door open
Customers often have more than one point of confusion or a problem is more complex than they initially let on. Maybe they worry they’ll look stupid or they’d rather not email a novel. Customer success means making sure your customers have everything they need, though—and an easy way to do that is to make sure you’ve answered any lingering questions they might have. So don’t simply answer the question and sign off. Invite further conversation:

  • Does that answer your question?
  • I hope that’s clear, but please let me know if I can help with anything else!
  • What else can I do for you?

Whenever a customer apologizes for “all the questions,” definitely start your next reply addressing that anxiety and make sure they understand that you’re there for them.

  • Not at all; I’m more than happy to help!
  • I’m happy to answer your questions, so keep ’em coming!
  • That’s what I’m here for!

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 road map (or may never happen at all), 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 design 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: “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 noted this for our product team and we’ll keep you posted if anything changes.”

Offer alternatives if you can. When your product or service lacks what they’re 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 feel as though 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.

negative vs positive image
Reframe any directives using positive, collaborative language.

Remember that, as Chase Clemons of Basecamp writes, it’s you and the customer against the problem:

Some customers can be irritating. But the moment it becomes you versus the customer, all hope is lost. Make sure it’s always 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 from the person handling the reply, or if you’re on a big support team, send out the email as being from your head support rep. Anything other than the generic “team.”

5. "Actually, you just should not"

Some words are almost never necessary—you can usually remove them from the sentence, and it means the same thing and isn’t any less polite. What’s worse, the use of these “filler” words can gum up your meaning or come across as rude.

A few of those potentially problematic words that tend to crop up in customer conversations:

  • Just
  • Should
  • Actually
  • Hopefully
  • Unfortunately

Granted, there are exceptions. For example, the “just” in “I just double-checked that setting and all looks well now” implies immediacy and sounds less stuffy, whereas the “just” in “Just go to this section of your account and click here” sounds annoyed, and makes the sentence worse.

Like any rule, if you know when to break it, go right ahead! But eliminating these tricky words from your support vocabulary is probably easier than pondering over whether they’re rude within the context of a particular sentence every time.

A few suggested reads:

6. "No problem"

Regardless of how “fun” your company’s brand voice is, ultra-casual phrases like “not a problem” and “no worries” undermine your real message—they beg the question of whether the customer’s request may have truly been a problem for you to handle.

“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.

7. "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. “I’m unable to” sounds much softer than “I can’t.” “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.”
Vs.
“Is it OK if I log into your account using your credentials?”

“You shouldn’t be seeing that error.”
Vs.
“Hmm, that’s definitely an unusual error message!”

“You won’t be able to access the premium features until you upgrade.”
Vs.
“When you upgrade to the Plus Plan, you’ll have access to those premium features.”

Again, no need to remove a tool from your toolbelt—sometimes these negative conjunctions really are the best choice for the message you want to convey. (There’s an amusing rhetorical difference between “I must” and “I can’t not!”) But when there’s no risk of compromising your meaning, looking for conjunctions that use “not” as a quick fix to make your overall message a more positive one.

It becomes a fun game to challenge yourself to rephrase any sentence with negatives to a positive message. Before you know it, you’ll be using it on your friends: “I’m so sorry I can’t come I’m unable to attend your Tupperware party!”

8. "Your business is very important to us"

Wherever possible, steer clear of customer service clichés. Which one of the following statements do you think is more appropriate?

“You are being transferred. Your call is very important to us.”
Vs.
“Hi Angela, I’m going to introduce you to Tim, our customer success specialist who will be better able to answer your question!”

Easy. One is a trite platitude that people are sick of hearing. The other explains to customers why the transfer is to their benefit. Wording makes all the difference.

Getting your team onboard

If you’d like your team to make some changes in the way they speak to customers, there are better ways to go about it than handing 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.

You could 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—and watch the quality of your interactions improve. 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, e.g.: here are the changes I’ve made, and here’s what it’s done for my CSAT scores.

At that point, you might consider creating a “support lexicon” of phrases for your team to live by, such as “My pleasure” and “Right away.” A support lexicon is like wearing your team’s colors. It signals, “This is who we are; this is how we do things.”

When those values and beliefs are fostered at the start, helping the team form an identity around these beliefs and behaviors, remarkable service ensues.

Title image via Freepik.

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