25 Things You Should Never Say to Customer Service
These phrases and actions aren't helping anyone.
Emotions tend to run high when you’re interacting with customer service reps. If you’re calling them or approaching them in a store, chances are you have a problem you are hoping they can help solve. You might be stressed out because you’re being charged more than you think you should be or because something you just bought is not working. And before you know it, things can escalate.
With tensions running high, it’s easy to say the wrong thing—perhaps disrespecting the person you’re speaking to, giving them inaccurate or unhelpful information, or undercutting your efforts to fix your problem. And it’s possible that you have no idea that what you’re saying is only making matters worse. To understand common mistakes customers make, we surveyed customer service experts and pulled together these 25 things to avoid saying or doing when trying to get better customer service.
While the person on the other end is working for the company that’s frustrating you, avoid conflating that individual with their organization since whatever is bothering you wasn’t directly their fault. Dane Kolbaba, founder of Watchdog Pest Control, urges against “using ‘you’ or ‘your’ when referring to mistakes the company (or a previous representative) made.”
“If they’re personally insulted for an issue they had no direct hand in, it’s completely human to feel less helpful, and these representatives are no different,” Kolbaba notes. You’re better off trying to ally yourself with them in order to solve the issue together, rather than lumping the rep in with the problem and accusing them.
“Your company screwed up, so you better fix this.”
The customer service rep is not there to be a punching bag. Even if someone at the company you are calling messed up, that does not mean you can hurl angry comments at the customer service rep and vent your rage just because they represent the organization that is frustrating you.
“Any form of abuse (e.g. verbal, emotional, etc.) should be completely avoided,” stresses Sarkis Hakopdjanian, director of strategy and principal for marketing consultancy The Business Clinic, which specializes in employee training services in customer service. “These are human beings that are trying to do their jobs as best as they can. Sometimes a customer is upset about something another employee did, or about a company policy, and they unfortunately take it out on the rep trying to resolve their problem.”
He adds that kindness is not just the more decent approach, it is far more effective at motivating customer service representatives than bullying ever could be.
“You’re not listening to me.”
Sometimes the person on the other end of the line may not quite understand the issue that you are having. But that does not mean they are not listening to you or that you can’t clarify what it is you are trying to explain without being rude.
“We understood you the first time—trust me, we did,” says Drew DuBoff, a growth strategist and outsourcing expert who manages the customer service for major financial advisor bloggers. “You’re just getting heated for no reason. Instead, try listening to the response and ask a clarifying question.”
“What do you mean, I can’t…?”
“This question is usually useless to ask because customer service representatives don’t control the rules. They just enforce them,” says DuBoff. “If your response to not being eligible for a refund is, ‘What do you mean, I can’t get a refund if I no longer can afford the program?’ then you should probably read the refund policy in advance and be an informed buyer.”
Trying to understand these policies will allow you to get the rep’s help finding wiggle room within them.
”You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Sometimes what seems like a defective product or bad service might just be confusion on your part, which is hard to realize when you’re caught up in a fit of frustration. But before you accuse the customer service person with whom you’re speaking of not understanding your situation, consider that they speak with many people who use their products and services daily, and might have some insight that you do not.
For example, one Reddit user offered up a particularly hilarious experience they had while working at a supermarket. A customer came in angry about the terrible shrimp she had purchased that disgusted her guests and was even rejected by her dog. “She comes back about five minutes later and said that she spoke with someone at the counter, who evidently put her in her place,” wrote the Redditor. “She had purchased fresh, uncooked shrimp that she thought was precooked. She just plopped it out on the table and served it. Raw, uncooked shrimp.”
”Isn’t the customer always right?”
This cliché still gets trotted out every so often—usually by customers who are definitely in the wrong.
“Customers are not always right,” writes Alexandra Sakellariou among her list of “Awful Things Customer Service Workers Know to Be True.” “The customer is more than often mistaken or confused. Whether they misread the price tag of a product or don’t understand the small print of your return policy, whenever a customer is unhappy, it generally has to do with a miscommunication or error on their end.”
“Let me speak to your manager.”
This line tells the person on the other end, “You aren’t going to be able to help me.” And while sometimes the manager can do more than the person you are speaking with, it also has the potential to backfire.
“This will immediately make the agent you’re speaking with uneasy,” says Ollie Smith, serial entrepreneur and CEO of energy-comparison site EnergySeek. “If the manager does show up, they will develop a negative opinion of you before they speak with you and will be less inclined to go the extra mile to resolve your issue.”
Instead, find a way to get the rep themselves to suggest escalating the call if needed. For example, ask, “What other options do we have to fix this?” or “Is there anyone else who might be able to help us?” Approach it as a collaboration rather than a confrontation.
“How hard can your job be?”
When you’re frustrated, it can be tempting to try and make the customer service person you’re speaking with feel small by insulting the work they are doing. That was the experience one Reddit user who works at Chili’s described in a thread about putting angry customers in their place.
When a customer was furious that the restaurant did not have his order, he said the “usual things,” like “How hard it your job?” “How could you screw up?” and “What is wrong with you?” The Chili’s employee asked him to say what he ordered and, “as soon as he got to the ahi tuna salad, I told him with the straightest face I could muster that he had ordered from the Outback next door. He said nothing, not even an apology and just turned around and walked out. I still get a nice laugh about it today.”
“I won’t pay that!”
You might be upset when you get your cable bill and see a charge on there you’re convinced must be a mistake. But starting your call with customer service with that line probably isn’t going to help your effort.
“In most cases, the individual customer service representative doesn’t gain anything if you do or don’t pay,” says Teel Lidow, an attorney and founder of the consumer claims service Radvocate. “These companies aggressively pursue unpaid bills—they won’t hesitate to send you to a collections agency or hit your credit report, even if you claim the bill is wrong.”
“I’m going to sue you.”
If things go really badly with the customer service rep or if you’re particularly upset about an inaccurate charge and are unable to resolve it, threatening to sue can sometimes seem an attractive option—or at least, it might give you a sense of power in the exchange. But in most situations, it’s not a great idea.
“Threatening legal action won’t necessarily have the impact you intend,” says Lidow. “Companies have legal departments to handle actual legal actions. Raising the possibility of a lawsuit is a good excuse for an individual customer service representative to say, ‘Not my problem,’ and end the conversation.”
“I’m calling because I’m angry.”
Usually you’re calling customer service because something is not working or is frustrating you. But conveying that to the person on the other end of the line within seconds of greeting them might not be the wisest tactic.
“When you’re calling customer service, chances are you’re annoyed because a product or service isn’t working properly and there might have been a long wait time on the phone to boot,” says Kolbaba. “When you do finally get someone, it’s completely understandable if you sound angry—however, make sure you’re not directing your anger to them, as this would very likely make them feel defensive, and sets the tone of the call to ‘hostile’ for both parties.”
“I’m taking my business elsewhere!”
While this threat might seem like the ultimate trump card any customer can lay out, threatening to pull their business is rarely as effective as it might feel in the moment. For one thing, you actually have to mean it. Often these are empty threats that you have no intention of actually following through on—because as inconvenient as a company may be to work with, finding a new vendor is usually more inconvenient. For another, the rep doesn’t care as much as you think they do.
“They are likely an employee on an hourly wage that’s just doing their job,” says Hakopdjanian. “A more effective approach is to speak to a supervisor, retentions department, or manager that has more discretion with the company’s policies”
“Is there someone there who speaks better English?”
“Some companies outsource their customer service departments to other countries,” says Hakopdjanian. “Many companies also hire first-generation immigrants that may have an accent. Unfortunately, some customers will discriminate against other people based on their ethnicity. If a customer service rep was hired by a company, speaks English well, and has a good understanding of the company’s products, they’re perfectly qualified to help solve a customer’s problem or process their transaction. There’s no need for racial discrimination.”
”And I also hate this about your product.”
If you’ve been dealing with an issue for a while, or have found it to be especially frustrating, it might be tempting to open up the floodgates once you get someone on the line who is willing to listen to you. But going on and on about your issue, venting rather than trying to find a solution, is a waste of everyone’s time and is likely to lead the rep to take you less seriously.
“When you’re communicating what the issue is to the representative, know that they’re taking notes and paying close attention so they can get to the root of the problem,” says Kolbaba. “The more you say, the more information they have to process, so whenever possible keep things simple and short.”
Sometimes just the right curse word feels like the only answer in a particularly contentious or frustrating situation. But it’s almost always a bad idea. “Using profanity, curse words, or expletives do not help your case,” explains DuBoff. “In fact, they communicate to the customer service representative that you’re aggravated and that you’ll be hostile to deal with.”
He explains that reps will often respond by giving the customer time to cool off, which might mean waiting several hours (or even a day plus) to respond—or by ignoring them altogether, leaving the customer with the same issue that made them so angry to begin with.
“These customer service reps are human beings doing the best job they can,” adds Hakopdjanian. “Swearing at them never motivates them to work faster or try harder. It’s actually counterproductive. When a person is being yelled at or bullied, they’re less motivated to want to help and may even look for ways to be firm with the company’s policies.”
“Let me also tell you about my…”
Just because the person on the other end of the line asks how you’re doing, that doesn’t mean they want to hear every detail of your day. The rep’s job is to be friendly, but that doesn’t mean they want to be your best buddy and have you fill up their time with personal details unrelated to the issue about which you called.
“Sometimes customers start rambling on about details that are completely irrelevant to their business transaction,” says Hakopdjanian. “Unfortunately, many people are lonely, so sometimes having a conversation with a customer service rep may be one of the few forms of social contact a person may have.”
But to be polite, save the personal stories, and let the customer service rep get on to their next call.
“Can you believe this idiot?”
When a customer service rep puts you on hold and you’re hearing elevator music, that means you can’t hear them, but they may be able to hear you. To be safe, mute your line if you decide to vent about their service to the person sitting next to you. Exhibit A: this Reddit thread asking customer service reps to express the things that annoy them about customers. “If I ‘put you on hold’ and you don’t hear music, I’m actually just muted,” one user revealed. “I can hear ALL the **** you just said about me.”
“Just forget it.”
While you might get to the cash register and change your mind about buying a product, leaving multiple items behind for the person up there to handle is not going to make you any friends at the store. As one customer service rep vented on Reddit: “I’ve actually had a customer come in, I work graveyard at a pharmacy, and spend an hour loading her cart with stuff… She said she left her card in her car and she’d be ‘right back.’ I never saw her again.”
Another emphasized that even worse is just leaving the item somewhere random in the store, requiring the employees to find it then put it away. “If you’re not going to get something, just hand it to the cashier and say you don’t want it,” they wrote. “Don’t hide it in the candy rack, especially if it’s something like ground beef.”
A few decades ago, calling someone “honey” or something similar may have come across as kind of charming, a term of endearment and friendliness. But times have changed, and this word is more likely to come across as condescending or creepy (especially if it’s a man speaking to a woman).
“I would advise avoiding pet names like ‘hun,’ ‘baby,’ ‘sweetie,’” says Emma Rodbro, head of the customer success team at Seniorly.com, a senior living marketplace that connects individuals to a senior living expert in their community. “Regardless of gender, I have found it makes a team member feel they aren’t being taken as seriously as they should be.”
“You have a sexy voice.”
Feel free to compliment the rep on the job they did or the help they provided, but getting too personal, even if it’s to give them a compliment, is likely to make them feel uncomfortable and less helpful than they would otherwise be.
“Do not tell someone that their voice sounds nice (we get a variation of that a lot) where they are essentially flirting on the phone and it’s a bit awkward,” says Sean Pour, cofounder of car-purchase site SellMax, which handles thousands of inbound calls daily.
“What time do you get off work?”
There’s a line between creating a more relaxed exchange and fully hitting on the person on the other line. “A customer service rep’s job is to be friendly, empathetic, and make a connection with their customer,” says Hakopdjanian. “Sometimes this friendliness gets mistaken for flirting. At the very least, it makes the situation unnecessarily uncomfortable. At the very worst, it makes the rep feel unsafe or in danger, especially if the customer doesn’t respond well to rejection.”
Loud background noise
You might be perfectly comfortable calling customer service from your local bar where people are talking loudly, there’s a live band playing, and patrons are shouting drink orders. But that’s not particularly conducive to solving your issue.
“The biggest pet peeve of our customer service agents is when people call in, and they are in an extremely noisy environment,” says Pour. “For example, if your dog is barking constantly in the background or you have a baby crying very loudly, it makes it much harder on the customer service rep. When you make someone’s job more difficult, they usually don’t do as good of a job.”
Bringing up multiple issues at once
Customer service reps are fielding dozens of calls every hour, and in a few short moments, they have to learn about the issue you are having, details about your account or purchase, and determine the next steps to take. That’s complicated enough without lobbing two or three or more issues at them simultaneously.
“Break down each issue,” urges Kolbaba. “If you have more than one issue or reason you’re calling about, break them down into separate chunks of information so the representative can take notes more accurately. If you approach it with the mentality of ‘let me help you help me,’ you will have the representative’s gratitude and it would make for a much smoother and efficient process.”
Offering incomplete information
While you want to avoid overloading a customer service rep with information, you also have to be wary of not giving them the full picture of your situation.
“Saying too little might leave them to make guesses or assume things,” says Kolbaba. “While a seasoned agent will know what to ask and probe, some might make assumptions and offer solutions that might have worked except for a little additional piece of information that would then change the solution entirely.”
”Everything is perfect!”
While it’s valuable to treat any customer service rep with respect and decency, you should also be wary of being too polite—that is, failing to fully express your preferences or opinions about the product or service the rep is offering.
“In the end, if you do not want our help, it is best to be straightforward,” says Rodbro. “We won’t be upset if you are honest. Being too polite and trying to say the right thing, when all the while you just want to hang up the phone, that is the worst.” And for more ways to get out of unpleasant phone situations, here are 17 Secrets Telemarketers Don’t Want You to Know.
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