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The 10 Worst Things to Say in Tech Support

by Rich Gallagher, Point of Contact Group

I have one of the coolest jobs in the world. I go around the country teaching customer support centers what to say in their most difficult customer situations. People learn that you can defuse these situations with procedural skills, and once they "get" the mechanics of acknowledging, validating, asking good questions, and framing positive alternatives, they invariably wonder why they didn't always talk to customers this way.

Here is why they don't: human nature fails us in tough customer situations. When we are confronted, we push back. When people make unreasonable requests, we say "no" instead of exploring options. When someone is upset, we defend ourselves instead of probing the other person's frustration. And that is why we end up holding the phone six inches from our ear.

So, in the spirit of teaching people the right things to say, I'd like to shift gears and share some of the worst phrases I normally hear people say in my workshops. Not rude things, or even the ubiquitous "read the manual," but rather phrases that nice people like you and me might say if we aren't careful. Phrases that are all but guaranteed to get a negative response from your customers. Here goes, with my tongue somewhat in cheek:

1. "I understand." No you don't. And the reason you don't is that you are using a timeworn catch phrase that no one believes anymore. Fifty years ago, the phrase "I understand" probably meant what it said, but today, it is uttered by so many disengaged support reps that people often process it as "drop dead." The sentiments of understanding someone are fine, just choose different words.

2. "I'm sorry." What word usually follows telling people you are sorry? That's right, "but." This is another catch phrase that people often use as a distancing tool. Here as well, find other words - any other words - to express remorse.

3. "I hate to tell you this." But sure enough, there you are telling them anyway. Phrases like these are what I call "brutal honesty," with more emphasis on the brutal than on the honesty. We say them thinking that we are preparing customers for bad news, when in reality we are launching a call to arms.

4. "You'll have to" No one has to do anything, ever. Compare "we'll be happy to fix your system as soon as we get your paperwork" with "you'll have to fill out the paperwork first" and see which customers get upset with you.

5. "Sir, you need to understand" Use this phrase and - surprise - you will find that customers feel they do not need to understand. Try words like "I respect how you feel, so let me explain the situation" instead.

6. "Let me be honest with you." You don't need another person's permission to be honest. But let me guess, what follows isn't good news for the customer, right? If so, try wording it with acknowledgment and empathy instead.

5. "I have no idea." Yes you do. There are always other options, other resources, or other people to escalate to. The only thing worse than saying "no" is wording it as confrontationally as possible.

6. "We are unable to" Here you mean to say that something goes against your policy, but by using words that should be reserved for situations like being bound and gagged, you unwittingly comes across as arrogant. Try the much better wording of "here is our policy, and here are your options."

8. "You should have" This phrase didn't work with your little brother either. Instead, try saying "Here is what will benefit you in the future."

9. Silence. In a telephone conversation or online chat, where your words are the only cue people have, silence is often perceived as rudeness. Use what psychologists call "minimal encourages" such as "OK" or "I see" or "I'm still here working on this" to keep validating the conversation.

10. "No." In live workshops, one of the few things I make people write down is "Never ever say no." Instead, acknowledge what they want and explore what you can do for them.

So how strong is the pull of human nature? So strong that in my live workshops, within minutes of sharing these phrases I still hear a barrage of "I understand," "I'm sorry," and "no" - because we have been conditioned for years to say them. So keep workshopping better phrases for your most critical situations, coach your team to use them, and watch what happens!

About the Author
Rich Gallagher is a leading national authority on communications skills. He is the author of eight books including What to Say to a Porcupine (AMACOM, 2008), a national #1 customer service bestseller and finalist for 2008 Business Book of the Year, and his latest book How to Tell Anyone Anything: Breakthrough Techniques for Handling Difficult Conversations at Work (AMACOM, 2009). Visit him online at