On treating flea bites with perfect phrasing.

Twelve faux-pas phrases in customer service, and what you should say instead.

The counter clerk at the pharmacy told me to “hold on” while he answered the phone, and already we were off to a bad start. When he finally greeted me with a “Hey,” I knew we were in real trouble. Let me preface this by saying that my patience may have been a little thin on that particular summer day, owing to the many tiny bumps that had formed around my ankles and the heat that only seemed to aggravate the itch. A diagnosis from Doctor Google had revealed that the bumps were actually flea bites, and I was literally itching to get some antihistamine cream on them before I clawed the skin right off my legs. Otherwise, though, I was totally levelheaded.

But even had I stopped into the pharmacy under more favorable circumstances, I still would have noticed the manner in which this clerk was speaking to me. When asked if they carried antihistamine cream, he said, “I don’t know what you mean—antihistamine cream.” When asked where they keep their creams for insect bites, he said, “Check over there.” And when I thanked him for his trouble, he responded with a charming, “Uh-huh.”

Later, as I rubbed some anti-itch cream into my ankles, I considered what had rubbed me the wrong way about the customer service I’d received at the pharmacy. It occurred to me that had the clerk simply phrased his statements a little better, I probably wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at his otherwise unaccommodating attitude.

"So I compiled a list of the top 12 customer service phrases that get under my skin worse than fleas."

First up, we have the all-too-casual expressions. These are:


As far as greetings go, it seems harmless enough, but there’s only one problem: I’m not your frat bro, dude. I’m your customer and you don’t know me from Adam, so let’s try something a little more professional, like, say, “Hello.” And if you throw in an extra “How can I help you?” you just might make my day.

"Hold on."

Equally annoying as “Hang on” and “Just a sec.” And no, adding a please afterward won’t help you save face. That’s because these phrases use the imperative mood, either expressly or implicitly. In other words, they’re command statements, and no one likes being ordered around. Instead, try asking me for permission to help someone else before you address my request. You might say something such as: “If I can answer this call, I’ll be able to give you my full attention.”


Where do I start with this one? This expression isn’t just rude; it’s lazy. Now if only there was another word that meant “Uh-huh” but had a more formal ring to it. Oh, wait—there is; it’s “Yes.” And if you’re responding to a “Thank you” with an “Uh-huh”—well, first off, shame on you—but second, consider the understated beauty of the expression, “You’re welcome.” This expression, unpacked, translates to: “You are welcome to ask for help anytime, my valued customer.” Less acceptable alternatives would be “No worries” or “No problem” as these statements imply that my requests might be seen as a “worry” or “problem” in the eyes of a lesser customer service rep.

Then you have the vague statements, such as:

“I don’t know.”

When I, as your customer, approach you with a certain question, it means I trust you hold the answer. So imagine how disappointing it is to learn that the thing I don’t know is the very thing you don’t know either. You may apologize sincerely to soften the blow, but if all you do is leave things at “I don’t know,” I’m still very much at a dead end. Instead, you may want to adopt this statement (and attitude): “That’s a good question. Let me find an answer for you.”

“It’s over there.” 

If I seek your help in finding a certain item at your store, I’ve probably already tried looking for it and won’t appreciate being sent on another wild-goose chase. And frankly, even if I haven’t already tried looking, it’s my prerogative to be lazy. We customers keep your store in business, so it would behoove you to include a little more direction in your directions. It’s like they say: “The devil’s in the details.” And if you really want to charm me, just say the magic words, “I’ll walk you to it.”

“Right away.”

Next on my list are the common excuses certain customer service representatives (CSRs) like to make, such as:

“We’re busy.”

 I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has used this line on me to explain away bad service. To my thinking, organizations are designed to run effectively at maximum capacity. And if they’re not, then there’s something seriously wrong with their infrastructure. What I hear when a CSR excuses bad behavior with “We’re busy” is: “We were so busy making every other customers’ experience special, we totally forgot about you.” Ouch. A much better response would be: “I’m so sorry about x. I know if that happened to me, I would be equally disappointed. Let me see what we can do to make it up to you.” Instead of defending yourself, focus on giving a sincere apology, followed by a show of empathy, and topped with a promise for compensation. Isn’t that way better than blaming shoddy service on all the other customers at your location?

“That’s not our department.”

There’s no better way to shirk responsibility—just send your customers away so they’re not your problem anymore. The trouble is, customers aren’t concerned with which department they’ve reached; they see your organization as a homogeneous whole. And if one department can’t briefly take over the duties of another, this signals to them that there’s a breakdown in communication at your organization. So instead of passing customers off to someone new so they have to repeat themselves all over again, why not contact that “other department” yourself and seek the answers they need? It’s not the customer’s job to do all the grunt work, after all.

“That’s against our company policy.”

Your customers aren’t employees of your company, so what makes you think they want to hear what your policy does and doesn’t allow? That excuse is a favorite among those CSRs who love to tell their customers “No” while sounding very official. Rather than tell me what you can’t do for me, maybe try telling me what you can do. Think of something you could offer me that’s very much within your company policy.

And finally, we come to the downright offensive phrases, such as:

“I’m sorry if….”

If you use the “if apology” you might as well be saying, “I’m not sure I have something to be sorry about.” The conditional “if” in the statement implies you’re still unconvinced you did something wrong or that you had a part to play in the offense. Worse, it shifts the blame to the injured party for having an “unreasonable reaction” to the offense. A more appropriate apology begins with an “I’m sorry that…” or “I’m sorry for….”

“Like I said….”

If you’ve used this line, you’re probably also guilty of telling your customers things like “You’re not listening to me.” This expression is condescending and suggests that you think of the person you’re addressing as either dumb or hard of hearing. If I keep asking you the same questions over and over, chances are it’s because you’re not really listening to me and maybe you’re the one with the hearing problem. Instead of talking down to a customer, try to discern the need beneath the request. Repeat the request back to that customer in your own words and ask if you have a proper understanding of what is being asked.

“Calm down.”

Two words that almost never achieve the intended result. If anything, they only make matters worse. Recipients of this statement usually are made to feel like their emotions aren’t appropriate or valid. Instead of antagonizing your aggrieved customers, you might try siding with them and expressing how you would feel in their shoes.

It’s so easy to fall back on some or all of these expressions when you’re feeling unmotivated, upset, or under the weather. But remember that if you’re willing to dole out such lines, you’re going to have to be willing to hear the line you like least of all: “Your service bites!”


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