The Three Worst Words in Customer Service

By changing a few words, you can turn a bad customer experience into a great one.

You'll Have To!We all have little things that drive us nuts. Here’s one of mine – the phrase “You’ll have to.”

Yesterday I walked into a store, politely asked for help, and was told, “You’ll have to wait for one of our technicians to be free.” I didn’t mind the wait, but it got me thinking how often we hear that statement in public – and how abrasive it is to hear as a customer. (Excuse me, but I don’t “have to” do anything, especially for a stranger!)

Most of us probably don’t say “you’ll have to” out of rudeness. We say it because we are trying to protect ourselves, or set expectations with a customer. But when you examine the meaning of this statement literally, you can see where it breeds a lot of customer resentment right off the bat:

  • It tells another person what to do.
  • It implies that you have the power in this transaction, not them.
  • It doesn’t give the customer options.

The irony is that, just by changing a few words, you can turn a curt brush-off into a great customer experience. Let’s try a few examples:

Before: You’ll have to fill out this form.

After: I’d like to get a little information from you so we can help you better.

Before: You’ll have to wait for a technician.

After: I’ll have someone out to help you in just a few minutes.

Before: You’ll have to wait in line.

After: We should be able to get to you soon – it shouldn’t be more than a short wait.

Perhaps the best example of an alternative to “you’ll have to” came when I tried to go to a sold-out Philadelphia Phillies baseball game last year, while I was passing through town. Instead of saying the obvious “We’re sold out – you’ll have to come back another time,” the ticket clerk said, “We’d love to have you see the game. Even though we’re sold out, here’s what I’d suggest – if you’d like, feel free to check at each of our gates to see if there are any extra tickets. Good luck!”

As it turned out, there were no tickets at any of the gates and I eventually left empty-handed – but every person I dealt with at the ballpark was so polite, upbeat and helpful that it was still a great customer experience. I later discovered that these people are specifically trained for what to say to fans in situations like these, and it works!

So look critically at times where you are tempted to say “you’ll have to” to customers, and start rehearsing new responses that speak to your customers’ interests. The difference will be amazing!

About the Author

Rich Gallagher is a communications skills expert and seminar leader. He is the author of several books including Great Customer Connections (AMACOM, 2006) and What to Say to a Porcupine (AMACOM, 2008).

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