13 Words You Should Never Use When Replying to a Customer

Opinion: The clinical tone and strange verbiage companies use on social media reeks of automation

Eradicate these 13 words from your company’s vocabulary
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It takes a lot for a customer to be willing to interact with a company. People brush by thousands of brands—from restaurants to online tools—on a daily basis and think nothing of it.

When a customer actually does take the time to reach out to a brand and offer feedback, it’s kind of a big deal. Companies have an incredible opportunity to highlight the team of passionate humans working behind the scenes of the business.

Perhaps that’s why it’s so unfortunate when companies respond to a thoughtful piece of constructive feedback with a polite and sterile response that doesn’t deal with the matter at hand. Even worse, the clinical tone and strange verbiage these companies use on social media reeks of automation. Considering that 42 percent of customers anticipate using messaging platforms as their primary means of contacting customer service, it will only become more critical to deliver authentic content in these channels.

In many cases, companies have only the best intentions when responding to complaints. Instead of using the language they’d employ during in-person interactions, they default to “customer-service speak” that comes across as robotic. That communication gap creates poor customer-service outcomes, but these companies have no idea that they’re doing anything wrong.

Comedian George Carlin is revered for many things, but many people remember his infamous bit about the seven words you can’t say on TV. While they’re decidedly less vulgar—I’m not in the habit of working blue—here are the 13 words you should never use when talking with customers:

  1. Fault: One of the worst things that a company can do when a customer sends a critical message is lay the fault at that customer’s door. A shocking 58 percent of consumers claim that they feel underappreciated by companies they do business with, and introducing fault into the relationship only makes things worse. Even if you’re blaming an external factor or a person on your team, the word “fault” connotes fear and defensiveness. Instead: Take blame out of the equation entirely and focus on the next step. Use a phrase like, “Here’s what I’d like to do next.”
  2. Policy: Companies have policies and procedures to handle situations based on past experiences, but your customers don’t need to hear about your internal processes. The word “policy” has a clinical ring to it that can make your company sound uncaring. Instead: Tell customers about how you’ve resolved similar issues in the past. Use a phrase like, “One thing we could do is,” to introduce your policy.
  3. Blame: Similar to “fault,” this word can quickly turn a customer into the enemy. A bad interaction with a rude employee is among the top reasons why customers switch brands, so don’t ruin things by playing the blame game. Instead: You’re better off avoiding the concept of blame altogether.
  4. Department: Whether problems originated in your sales or marketing team might seem like a big deal to you, but your customers aren’t interested in your organizational structure. They just want to talk to a human and resolve their issue. Consumers report that one of their biggest frustrations when contacting customer service is being trolleyed around to different departments. Instead: If you have to check with another department, don’t mention it. Say, “My friends,” or, “My colleagues,” and you’ll sound much more human.
  5. Our: It might seem friendlier to speak as a collective when responding to customers, but it can unintentionally separate your customer from the human on the other end of the call. In fact, 34.5 percent of customers report disappointment when customer service isn’t person-to-person. Instead: Use “I” and “me.” It tells customers that you personally are looking after their concerns and won’t just ship them off to another “department.”
  6. Misunderstanding: This one seems innocent enough. Many companies feel like this is a soft way of referring to a conflict without placing blame. But this word can feel like a polite way of telling a customer that he or she made an error. It can sound fairly passive-aggressive. Instead: Don’t get into the murky territory of whose mistake it was. Apologize that the customer is unhappy, and focus on how you’re going to rectify the problem.
  7. If: “If” makes everything you say seem conditional, which can be confusing or downright patronizing. Imagine you’re the customer who’s hearing, “I’m sorry if you were disappointed by your service today.” It belittles your complaint and makes it sound like you imagined the poor service in the first place. Instead: Mean what you say. Admit that your customer had a bad experience, and let him or her know that you’re willing to listen.
  8. But: “But” is usually a negative word in customer service. People often use it to introduce the unfortunate side of the conversation: “I’d love to help you, but our policy …” Instead: Don’t make excuses. Either help your customers or tell them clearly that you cannot. (Hint: You should choose the first option.)
  9. Per: So many customer-service interactions are going well until someone tosses in the word that only belongs in a dishwasher manual. “Per the instructions you received,” or, “Per our policy” (bonus points for using three of the 13 words at once) are incredibly formal, inhuman and unnecessary. Instead: Describe what you, as a human, are doing: “I’ve looked at our records, and I see …”
  10. Just: A little word that can do an absurd amount of damage to your customer relationships. Using the word “just” or “only” as a qualifier can make your actions sound half-hearted and unimportant. “I just called to say I’m sorry” undermines the action you’re taking on behalf of the customer. Instead: Eliminate the “just”: “I called to say I’m sorry.” Own up to what you’re doing and present yourself as straightforward and earnest.
  11. Consider: Much the same as “just,” the word “consider” can seem dismissive. “We’ll consider your complaint” doesn’t give customers confidence that your business cares. Instead: Tell the customer exactly what you’re going to do for him or her. Instead of considering options, be clear about solutions.
  12. Try: The word “try” lowers expectations. It turns good customer service into an open-ended task with an inconclusive resolution, opening a loop that it might never close. As Yoda famously quipped, “Do or do not. There is no try.” Instead: Say what you’re going to do for the customer. “By the end of the day, I will determine whether we can credit your account.” Never make a promise you cannot keep, and keep your phrasing active and positive.
  13. Seems: “It seems like you had a negative experience with us” turns your customer into the problem. When you consider that 53 percent of customers stop doing business with a company because they feel unappreciated, these little language missteps add up. Instead: If a customer is complaining, he or she had a bad experience. Don’t downplay the situation. Say something like, “I see you’ve had a bad experience. I’m so sorry about that.”

Eradicate these 13 words from your company’s vocabulary, and you’ll begin to have far more productive, mutually beneficial and human conversations with your customers. These interactions will encourage customers to come back for more while rewarding people for reaching out. You might even host a training party focused on these 13 words, asking employees to feed copies of the offending words into a paper shredder while practicing better—and more human—conversations.

Jay Baer is a renowned business strategist, keynote speaker and The New York Times best-selling author of five books. He is the founder of Convince & Convert, a strategy consulting firm that helps prominent companies gain and keep more customers through the smart intersection of technology, social media and customer service. His latest book, Hug Your Haters, outlines how to embrace complaints, put haters to work for your company and turn bad news into good.