Customer Service Vocabulary: Never say this Word

Forever ban this word from your customer service vocabulary!

During my previous life as an attorney, I recall Judge Emanuel LoGalbo, now retired, relentlessly reminding attorneys and witnesses that “words matter.” In other words (pun intended), the outcome of a case could hinge on a particular word uttered by an attorney or a witness. And he’s right: During the 15 years I practiced law, I observed numerous instances wherein litigants won and lost their cases because of a single word that was haphazardly used.

Judge LoGalbo’s savvy observation, although made within the context of our legal system, applies equally to customer service vocabulary: Words matter, and they matter a lot.

This week, we’re focusing on one particular word that employees should remove from their customer service vocabulary. Although at first glance it may appear that front-line employees might be more prone to use this word, in reality, the word is also used by supervisors, managers, and executives. In short, the temptation to use this word infects all employees, regardless of rank, position, or title.

What is this insidious word that should be forever banned from your customer service vocabulary?


In most cases, the word “they” is used when delivering bad news to customers. Indeed, no one enjoys delivering bad news to anyone, and employees are no exception, particularly when interacting with customers, the lifeblood of business. Consequently, employees often resort to using “they” as an impromptu defense mechanism to insulate themselves from being personally criticized by customers receiving bad news: “I” didn’t make the decision; “they” did.

For example, a restaurant server might say, “They took that item off our menu.” An automobile service technician might say, “They won’t have your car done until tomorrow afternoon.” Or a bookstore clerk might say, “They don’t have that book in stock.”

Here’s the problem, though. Anytime an employee uses the word “they,” it’s easy to imagine a nebulous group of individuals surreptitiously rendering decisions inside a hidden, underground chamber that Nicolas Cage himself wouldn’t be able to locate in any of his National Treasure movies. And, as Jerry Seinfeld might ask, “Just who are ‘they,’ anyway?”

Moreover, using the word “they” creates an “I” versus “them” mentality wherein the employee delivering the bad news (“I”) pits him- or herself, together with his or her customers, against the evil employee (“them”) responsible for the decision sparking the bad news. Too often, this strategy is used as a superficial excuse that — instead of addressing the customer’s specific needs, which should be the primary focus of customer communications — merely deflects blame to “they,” which typically refers to corporate office or another department. And this says nothing of the fact that the “I” versus “them” mentality reflects poorly on the business itself.

This week, consider the following three strategies that can be used to strike the word “they” from your customer service vocabulary:

  • First, use “we” instead of “they.” The word “we” presents a unified approach to customer communications and, therefore, reduces the risk of creating an “I” versus “them” mentality that could too easily place your business in a negative light.
  • Second, when delivering bad news to customers, genuinely apologize for the situation, and offer an alternative, especially if your business didn’t deliver as promised. For example, “We’re so sorry that we don’t currently offer kettle chips on our menu. We’ve replaced that item with seasoned waffle fries. Could we bring you a free sample of the waffle fries or perhaps another appetizer to try?”
  • Third, when making decisions that have the potential to disappoint customers, invest as much, if not more, time and effort in creating a detailed “customer bad news” strategy. The strategy should, at the very least, address (i) how to deliver the bad news to customers; (ii) what to say (and what to not say) when delivering the bad news to customers, and, most importantly, (iii) what alternatives employees can grant customers.

These strategies will make the process of delivering bad news to customers more consistent. Just as importantly, these strategies will also require your business to anticipate, and plan for, the delivery of bad news to your customers, thus providing your business sufficient time to appropriately train your employees.

As usual, have a “customerific” week!


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