6 Things You Should Never Say to a Customer

During my years in training, I've had many conversations with people about the connection between behaviors and attitudes - especially when it comes to customer service. Does an employee’s poor attitude cause poor performance? Or does an employee’s poor performance create a poor attitude, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy?

The answer is yes and yes. But, the reality is like the ongoing question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. It really doesn’t matter. How do you know someone has a poor attitude? It shows. And, if it shows, you’re dealing with behaviors. If it doesn’t show, it’s not a problem.

Although there is a direct correlation between how we think (our attitudes) and what we do (our behaviors), the only way to help your employees change poor performance is to focus on their behaviors. What they do and say. How they are acting.

But it’s not black and white. While you can’t change your employees’ moods or attitudes—they need to do that for themselves—you can influence how they think about and approach their work with service skills training. Regardless of whether you work in a hospital, a retail store, a restaurant, or a non-profit, when you come to work, you’re on. You need to check your mood and emotions at the door and you need to help your employees do the same. Why? Because your customers don’t care whether you overslept. Or missed the bus. Or had an argument before breakfast. Your patients don’t care if you got a speeding ticket. Or that you didn’t get the day off you requested. Or that you’re tired and cranky.

As a manager, it’s important that your employees understand how their moods and attitudes affect their behaviors and ultimately everyone around them. When you help them understand they can “put on” any disposition they want, they’ll find that they enjoy work more and their customers will have a better experience as well. This is all part of customer service skills training.

What your front line service employees say to your customers is an easy barometer of their attitude, how they are feeling, and what they are thinking about work. There are many things an associate shouldn’t say to or around a customer or a patient. Some are driven by a poor attitude and some are driven by lack of knowledge about what is or isn’t appropriate.

Whether you’re dealing with a poor attitude about work or unacceptable customer service behaviors, here’s a good starting point for a discussion:

Six Things You Should Never Say to a Customer

I hate my job… Corporate sucks… This company is lame… My boss is a jerk…

Let’s face it, nobody likes whining. Harsh words and complaints about your job, the company, your boss or co-workers should never be directed to or within hearing of a customer. It’s the start of a downhill slide that will affect everyone around you.

Let me give you an example. The other day I was sitting in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. It was early morning and surprisingly quiet. Perhaps if it were later in the day, when patients’ voices and the activity of the nurses and doctors would create a hum in the office, I wouldn’t have heard it.

The receptionist walked by and said - to no one in particular but teeming with emotion - “I hate this job.” I looked up to see her go toward her desk. Does she really hate her job, I wondered. Or was she just having a bad day? Is it colleagues who makes her crazy or does she truly hate everything about what she does here?

How many people would her mood impact today? How many patients see her first? How many people have to interact with her in a day? Will she be able to shake it off and smile at the next patient who comes in? Will her manager address her negative behaviors?

It doesn’t matter that the receptionist didn’t say those words directly to me. It doesn’t even matter whether she meant what she said. I heard her and so did the other people in the room.

2. There's nothing I can do.

Even if that’s true—and it rarely is—there’s a better way to say it.

Those five little words lit a fire of resolve in a friend of mine a few months ago. She had just returned from a business trip to Seattle and was relating to me the audacity (her word) of the hotel staff at the waterfront property where she had stayed.

“He wouldn’t budge,” she told me. “He actually said, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’ ”

Here’s what happened. She arrived to discover that her room had been given away in error. The hotel set her up in a different room, this one with a water view—and here’s the kicker—a higher price tag. Given that it wasn’t her fault that the reservation was cancelled, she questioned the higher rate, which was almost $75 more per night. The hotel clerk relented and negotiated a lower rate.

“It was still higher than my original rate, but I was tired and just happy I had a room, so I agreed,” she told me.

Here comes the surprise. When she checked out on the fifth day of her stay, her room bill showed the lower rate for the first night only. Her bill was almost $250 more than she was expecting.

“I gave them the benefit of the doubt and went through the whole story. The clerk told me the lower rate was only for the first night and that my original rate was moot because it was a special the hotel no longer offered,” she said.

That’s when he said it. “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do,” the clerk told her. That’s when she asked to speak with the manager. The manager essentially said the same thing. When my friend told the manager she would talk with her credit card company about the charge, he said, “That’s fine. We’ll deal with your credit card company then.”

“You would rather lose me as a customer and try to resolve this dispute with my credit card company than settle it with me now and maybe keep me as a customer?” she questioned him. “There’s nothing to resolve,” he told her. “You’ve just taken it out of my hands. There’s nothing I can do.”

With those words for the second time, my friend saw red. As soon as she got home, she contacted her credit card company. The credit company investigated and eventually charged back the hotel for the higher rate. But the hotel lost a lot of business that day—my friend and all of her colleagues. The travel business that books trips for all the associates in her company won’t use that hotel again.

3. That’s our policy.

Just like saying “There’s nothing I can do,” these words are a cop-out. And they will escalate a customer problem.

If company policy stands in the way of handling a service problem, look for a workaround. Customers are forgiving if they feel that you’re trying. And a well-handled complaint actually builds loyalty. But throwing up your hands and saying “That’s our policy” shuts down discussion. It essentially tells the customer that you’re finished and that there is no amenable solution.

You may be finished but your customer isn’t. An angry customer doesn’t stop feeling angry when you say, “that’s our policy… we’re finished here.” They leave. They talk to others. And given that most consumers are now internet-savvy, they chat online about their experiences too. Just look at the repercussions just one negative complaint can have when spread virally throughout social media.

So, if you can’t change policy on the spot, at least try to come up with a solution. The problem doesn’t end just because you want it to end.

4. No problem.

Further clarification is given on this term in my article Six Things Every Customer Wants to Hear. It seems this isn’t only my pet peeve. The appropriate and polite response to “thank you” is “you’re welcome.” Saying “no problem” is not.

I know it’s become part of pop culture vernacular. But, saying “no problem” suggests that the customer was a potential problem and—thank goodness—things turned out okay. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to think of myself as a potential problem customer, an interruption, a disruption or a hassle.

Sure, some customers always seem to have a problem. And some customers may not always approach you with the respect you deserve. They may let their emotions get the best of them. They may even let their bad moods impact their interaction with you. But they’re not the ones getting paid to do a job. You are.

You have a job because of them. Tasks and everything else that you may be working on can wait. So, the next time a customer thanks you for helping, say “my pleasure” instead. And if that’s a tad too cheery for your personality, stick with the tried and true “You’re welcome.”

5. What’s up… Wassup… Here’s the deal… or any other slang

It’s one thing to use slang when you talk co-worker to co-worker. It’s quite another to direct it toward your customers. Using slang like “Hey, what’s up?” instead of a more traditional “Hello, how are you?” may leave your customers feeling disrespected. Other slang expressions may leave your customers wondering what you said.

There’s no question that the use of slang is part of life. It intimates cultural bonds, age bonds, and gender bonds. But unless your customers can all connect with you based on age, gender and culture, keep the use of slang out of work.

6. You need…You should… You…You…You

Not to be confused with the customer-friendly phrase “for you,” the phrases “you need” or “you should,” or even used alone, the word “you” often puts a customer on the defensive.

Instead, use “we” or “I” especially when you’re dealing with a potential problem:

“You need to drop off your shirts by 7 am to get same day service.”

VS. “We need everything in by 7 am to offer same day service.”

“You need your receipt to get cash back.”

VS. “I can give you cash back with a receipt; otherwise I’d be more than happy to give you a store credit." 

“You should have filled out this paperwork first.”

VS. “We should have filled out your paperwork first.”

It seems like a small thing but “we” and “I” are inclusive. It suggests you are working with the customer. You’re looking for a win-win instead of an “us versus them” arrangement.

Putting on a Friendly Attitude

One of the most meaningful quotes I’ve ever read about attitude is attributed to Martha Washington:

“The greatest part of our happiness depends on our dispositions, not our circumstances.”

Educate your employees on choosing a customer-friendly disposition and your customers won’t have to hear things that stem from a poor attitude, like “I hate my job.”

What do YOU think?

Some of the other things listed here are just simple customer service tips, regardless of mood. I’ve included only six, but there are many others. Aside from basic common sense things like harassing comments or personal statements, what have you heard an employee say to a customer that should never be said? What can you add to the list of things you should never say to a customer? Use the comments section below and help us add to this list.

Michele Eby works for Media Partners as a writer and training advisor. She has worked in the training and development field for more than 15 years. The best-selling training program, “Give ‘Em the Pickle” was a source for this article.