Stay away from these two phrases when you speak to a customer

You might not realize how condescending you sound.

Stay away from these two phrases when you speak to a customer
[Photo: anyaberkut/IStock]

There’s a straightforward rule of customer service–never make your customer feel like an idiot. This might seem obvious, but if you’re not careful, it’s pretty easy to send this message unintentionally. Sometimes, all it takes is a single word.


Over the years, I’ve observed and critiqued hundreds of customer service interactions. Many of them have been phone calls to our client’s service or technical support departments. We use these calls to help develop training programs. As you may imagine, many of these discussions include customers with a problem.

The thing is, not all of these “problems” involved angry or upset customers. Most of them began in a quite civilized manner. But it was not unusual for some calls to escalate to an unpleasant level, with customers becoming angry, sometimes very angry.

Here’s what’s interesting: When listening to these calls again, we could pinpoint the precise moment when a customer’s emotional state changed. In most cases, the trigger had far less to do with the issue at hand and everything to do with how the employee responded.

Upon digging deeper, we discovered similarities in words and phrases that created a negative response. Two of the most offensive words on the list involved “invisible language”–words that aren’t necessary spoken, but that the person heard. Here are two examples:


“Actually” was the most common culprit, and it’s something we are all guilty of saying from time to time. Alone, the word “actually” is harmless. But when you use it at the beginning of a sentence, its impact significantly changes.


When someone starts a sentence with actually, we know what’s going to follow. We are about to be corrected. We are about to be told we are wrong. We’re about to feel like an idiot.

“Actually” is one of the hallmarks of serial contrarians: people who can’t seem to stop themselves from correcting others. When you comment that something is light green, they respond with “actually, it’s mint.” As a long-reformed serial contrarian, I can attest in seeing a difference in my ability to connect with people when I stopped this behavior.

“Like I told you before”

Here is another guaranteed customer service killer. Saying “Like I told you before.” This phrase only serves one purpose: to vent your frustration and make the other person feel stupid. There are no benefits whatsoever to this phrase. None. Ever.

Sure, maybe you have already said this to a customer. Perhaps even many times. Sure, it’s frustrating. But this is where rule number one comes in: “Never make your customer feel like an idiot.” This rule holds true no matter how much of an idiot you perceive someone to be.

What to do if you have to correct someone

Of course, there are times when correcting a misunderstanding is the right thing to do. But there is a way to do it without being condescending. Stop and ask yourself, what’s the benefit? Is it important? Does the benefit of the correction outweigh the risk of making this person feel stupid? If there isn’t any benefit, you’re better off biting your tongue.


You can also use what’s called the “validate-clarify-continue” technique. This is a language strategy that helps you present correct information while minimizing the risk of triggering negative emotions. For example, instead of saying “Actually, the entrance is at the back of this building,” try something like this:

  • (Validate their belief) “It would make sense for the entrance to be at the front, wouldn’t it!”
  • (Clarify) “For some reason, the entrance here is at the back”
  • (Continue–with a question to move the conversation forward) “Do you know how to get around there?”

The payoff to getting customer service right

Focusing on language might seem trivial, but these little things make a big difference, particularly in today’s digital world. Just think about the impact of someone talking about terrible customer service via social media. A recent study by New Voice Media estimates that U.S. companies are losing $62 billion each year due to poor customer experience.

Of course, service failures and negative situations are inevitable in any business. But these are precisely the moments when companies need to step up their customer service game. If you get it right, people will start talking about you in a good way. A 2016 study identified that 72% of positive “wow” experiences–experiences that customers are likely to share with friends family and on social media–stem from difficult situations. When customers feel that you care and are taking ownership of a negative situation, they remember it.

When you know a product inside out, and a customer tells you something about it that you know is wrong, it’s tempting to point out their error. But remember, in customer service, your job is not to prove to them that you’re right. Your role is to help them fix whatever problem they’re having with your product, and make them feel like you care. That’s not going to happen if you make them feel like an idiot.

Shaun Belding is the author of The Journey to Wow and CEO of The Belding Group of Companies–an award-winning business dedicated to global customer service training and customer experience.