10 Deadly Customer Service Phrases to Avoid

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Gone are the days where customer transactions only transpire in person or over the phone.

These days, the modern customer expects help on their terms -- whether that be via social media or a messaging app, during standard work hours or in the middle of the night.

And they expect that help to be just that ... helpful. They want the person on the other end of the line (or screen, or app) to get to the root of the problem fast, and provide a solution even faster.

But there are a few things that can cause the conversation to take a wrong turn, including the customer service phrases below.

1. "Give me one second to look into that ... "

When helping a customer work through a problem, you really want to flex your direct communication skills. This isn't to say you should be insensitive or argumentative, but rather you should aim to:

  • Set expectations. Are you going to put them on hold while you dig in? How long do you expect this to take? Be upfront.
  • Define your plan of action. What exactly are you looking into? Are you going to check their account information? Ask a colleague? Let them know you actually have a plan and you're not just scrambling.

What To Say Instead: "This is possible, but I need to run a report first. This will only take two or three minutes, would you like me to place you on hold while I process it?"

Give customers a clear timeframe and tell them how you're going to help them so they know they aren't just waiting on hold for an eternity.

2. "Unfortunately, no ..."

You might be thinking, "Is there really a good way to say 'no'?"

Turns out, there are ways to soften the blow and provide a better experience for the customer, even when you can't accommodate their request entirely.

Instead of leading with the negative, try offering up the best possible alternative first -- it may end up being just what they need.

What To Say Instead: "I understand your frustration."

Can't think of an alternative right off the bat? Try asking a few clarifying questions first. By drawing out more detail, you may find that there is, in fact, a way to offer them support -- or at least meet them in the middle. And when in doubt, a little empathy can go a long way.

3. "I can't help with that."

This is a comeback that customer service and customer success professionals fall back on when they are limited by policies and protocol -- when the organizations they work for put process over people.

To combat this, it's important to first surface this as a concern to senior management, as the decision to remove or reduce restrictive policies typically falls in their court.

And if you need an example to support this idea, point them to the Ritz-Carlton, where employees are trusted to make decisions and given $2,000 a day to use towards customer delight:

"Sometimes the most delightful 'wow' moments happen in the blink of an eye. If employees are not empowered and need to cross layers of approval, these moments could be lost forever," explains a Senior Account Executive from the luxury hotel chain.

What To Say Instead: "I understand why you'd want that."

No wiggle room to reduce policies and protocol? Still, there's always something you can do, even if it's just listening and passing feedback along to your team.

4. "Actually, ... "

But, but, the customer is always right, right?

When dealing with a situation where a customer is misunderstanding the way something works, take a minute to remember that you've made mistakes before too -- and this is not the time and place to flex your authority or come off as accusatory.

Believe it or not, Apple has gone as far as creating a rule against employees correcting customer mispronunciations, as they feel it's both condescending and rude to do so, according to an article from Business Insider.

What To Say Instead: "I want to check that we're both on the same page."

Keep your tone helpful and upbeat while asking clarifying questions so the customer doesn't feel condescended to or chastised.

5. "You misheard me."

Giving and receiving information isn't always easy, especially when the customer is feeling frustrated or confused.

Rather than allowing emotions to muddy up your communication, take accountability for ensuring that the customer fully understands the situation and all of the possible outcomes.

What To Say Instead: "What I'm hearing is [ISSUE]. Is that correct?"

What's obvious to you, might not be so obvious to someone lacking proper context. This might mean that you need to adjust your communication style to ensure that you're clearly stating your intentions and conveying you willingness to help, regardless of any confusion that may have taken place.

6. "I'm sorry."

The phrase "I'm sorry" is often used as a crutch phrase -- one that carries little significance or impact when used out of context.

In other words:

  • Don't say sorry when you really mean, "I'll have to look that up."
  • Don't say sorry when you really mean, "Can I ask you a question?"
  • Don't say sorry when you really mean, "I want to understand the problem better."

What To Say Instead: "I want to make sure I understand your issue ... "

Instead of immediately apologizing, ask for more clarity on the situation, and thank the customer for taking the time to help you help them. And if you are going to apologize, follow it up with a solution. Customers want to know that you're actually going to do something about the mistake or miscommunication.

7. "Can I put you on hold?"

No customer wants to be put on hold -- especially when you're putting them on hold to address someone else's problem. Unfortunately, there are circumstances when this is unavoidable.

If you have to ask a customer to hold, ask them first. In some circumstances, they might not have the time to wait and would prefer to call back later. Instead say, "May I place you on a brief hold while I do XYZ?"

What To Say Instead: "Would you mind if I put you on hold for a moment so I can dig into this further for you?"

If the hold is taking longer than anticipated, hop back on to let them know you appreciate their patience. Explain the situation and reset their expectations.

8. "I don't see your account information in our database."

Want to send a customer over the edge? Say this. There's nothing more frustrating than reaching out for help only to be met with disorganization on the other end.

If you find yourself leaning on this phrase a lot, you'll likely benefit from investing in some customer service software. Software like this has the ability to increase transparency and collaboration across departments, so you're never left at a loss when you realize the notes from the customer's last call are hiding in your colleague's inbox.

What To Say Instead: "Would you mind giving me a minute to double-check your account?"

This will buy you some time to check your database to make sure you know exactly what the issue is before getting back on the phone to avoid confusing or unnecessarily angering the customer.

9. "That's not something I can do."

Even if a customer's request exceeds your pay grade or permissions, it's still your responsibility to direct them towards a solution.

Rather than letting the customer know what you can't do, make it clear what you can do by connecting them with someone who can help straight away.

What To Say Instead: "As much as I'd love to help with that ... "

And don't forget to think back to #3 on this one: In most cases, this phrase can be prevented by surfacing the negative impact that these type of role restrictions cause with your senior management. Perhaps there's room to create more flexible permissions to avoid having to climb the latter every time you need to perform a certain task for a customer.

10. "Can you remind me what your last name and phone number are?"

Ask anyone with a last name that's longer than 10 letters: Spelling out your name over the phone is the worst.

And depending on the phone system you have, your customer might have already had to enter their phone number or utter their last name at a robot in order to get in touch with you.

So make sure you're using software that keeps track of customer information -- including history -- so you have the context you need to address their issues. It doesn't hurt to take notes as you're talking to make sure you have the information you need on hand.

What To Say Instead: "I want to make sure I'm not repeating myself."

This phrase will buy you some time to check your records while still making sure the customer is engaged and happy.

Remember: We're All Human.

Being in a customer-facing role can be taxing -- especially when you're not equipped with the proper tools and permissions to help a customer quickly get to a solution. Luckily, you're in control of how you choose to respond.

This isn't to say that you should constantly feel like you're walking on eggshells, but you should be conscious and strategic in how you handle customer communications. Put yourself in the shoes of the person on the other end of the line, and show some empathy -- trust us, it'll go a long way.

To learn more, read about customer empathy next.

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