Years of loyal business, created or ruined in minutes.
That’s the power of a phone call or online chat exchange. Every conversation with a client, customer, or prospect is a moment that could shape your company’s future—for better or worse. It’s an opportunity to either win someone over or lose them to a competitor, to establish trust or sabotage a relationship. And the outcome, positive or negative, can result from seemingly minor decisions and inadvertent behaviors.
Frequently, it comes down to a few words.
With that in mind, and in the interest of helping more small businesses avoid catastrophic client interactions, here are a few all-too-common phrases to avoid:
1. “I don’t know.”
Unless you run a psychic reading service, you’re probably going to encounter questions to which you don’t have an immediate answer. That doesn’t mean the other person needs to know that you don’t know. Skip the shrug and move on to helping the client or prospect get the information they need.
What to say instead: “Good question! Let me put you in touch with someone who can answer it.”
2. “I’m not sure.”
Like “I don’t know,” “I’m not sure” is a useless acknowledgment of doubt. Moreover, it can cause you to seem disorganized, unprofessional, or lacking in confidence. It’s better to focus on the positive assistance you can offer.
What to say instead: “I’ll be happy to find that out for you.”
3. “I can’t.”
During an interaction with a client or prospect, your job is to keep the conversation moving. “I can’t” is a dead end. Think of what you can do and offer to do it. There’s always another route to take—perhaps it’s providing an alternative option, following up later, or even just listening and acknowledging the individual’s concerns.
What to say instead:
“I know who can help you with that—let me connect you with them.”
“I can do that! One moment please.”
“Thank you for bringing this issue to our attention. We’ll work on resolving it as quickly as possible.”
4. “That’s not my problem.”
Also said as “That’s not my job.” Regardless of your role, department, or area of knowledge, every client or prospect concern should be your concern when you’re involved in the conversation. Again, demonstrate what you can do rather than what you can’t (or would prefer not to).
What to say instead: “Our specialist [name] would be the best person to help you with that. Can I connect you with them?”
5. “You’re wrong.”
No, the customer isn’t always right. But you don’t need to go out of your way to tell them that. Use a misunderstanding or potential conflict to demonstrate empathy, check your assumptions, and gently educate your client or prospect if necessary.
What to say instead: “It sounds like you’re experiencing [specific problem, reiterated back to the client or prospect]. Is that right? Here’s what I can do to help.”
6. “Calm down.”
Urging someone to relax tends to have the opposite effect. Phrases like “calm down” turn what should be a collaborative exchange into an adversarial one. No matter how angry or upset your client or prospect might be, it’s up to you to deescalate the situation. Rather than telling the other person how to feel, acknowledge their emotions and guide them to a resolution that will naturally result in them feeling better.
What to say instead: “I can see why you’re upset, and I’m sorry for any frustration this situation has caused you. Here’s what we can do to fix it.”
7. The wrong name, pronoun, or form of address.
Referring to someone by the wrong name or identifier is not only embarrassing, but disrespectful—and potentially discriminatory. Know the name of the person you’re talking to, as well as their preferred pronouns (e.g. he, she, they) and forms of address (sir, ma’am, Ms., Mx., Dr., etc.). If you’re not sure how the client or prospect identifies, consider asking. One easy way is to state your pronouns first, thereby offering the other person the opportunity to do the same.
Many professionals have taken to adding their pronouns to their email signature. A simple (she/her/hers) under your name will do!
8. “We’re too busy for that.”
Busy-ness is great for business—until it gets in the way of new business. Like “I can’t,” “we’re busy” is a dead end. Don’t simply tell a client or prospect they’re out of luck. Instead, set communicate your availability, set realistic expectations, and schedule a follow-up if possible.
What to say instead: “I’m afraid we can’t do that right now, but I would be happy to help you as soon as we can. The next opening we have is [on/around date]—will that be all right for you?”
9. “Just a sec.”
There’s nothing wrong with taking a brief pause to meet a client or prospect’s need. That said, this specific phrase is a little too informal. Trade it for a classier “one moment, please,” and let your professionalism shine.
What to say instead:
“One moment, please.”
“Happy to help! I’ll need to [engage in a certain action] first. Could you give me one moment?”
10. “Hold, please.”
The flipside of “just a sec,” this phrase is too formal—and somewhat cold and robotic. It’s also framed as a command rather than a request. Before placing someone on hold, be sure to ask their permission first. If they decline, respect their decision—don’t press the “Hold” key.
What to say instead: “May I place you on hold for a moment?”
11. “They’re on the other line right now.”
Sure, it might be true that Ms. Smith is on the other line, but maybe don’t tell your caller that. Otherwise, they may infer that Ms. Smith will return the call as soon as she’s off that other line—which might not be true. Another potential hitch: your caller might ask to wait on hold until Ms. Smith is available, and if you’re not sure Ms. Smith wants to talk to your caller as soon as she’s free, trouble could be ahead.
What to say instead: “I’m afraid [name] isn’t available right now, but I would be happy to take a message! Is there anything else I can help you with in the meantime?”
12. “Just between you and me…”
Camaraderie with a client or prospect is a beautiful thing—unless it comes at the expense of your team. No issue is worth throwing someone you work with under the bus, so to speak. The same goes for company policies, values, trade secrets, or anything else your organization holds dear. By sharing confidential matters or your unfavorable opinions with someone outside of your business, you risk that person perceiving you as dishonest or untrustworthy.
What to say instead: Nothing. Raise your concerns with members of your team or keep them to yourself.
13. “I’m not in the mood for this.”
We’ve all had bad days. You don’t need to keep those feelings to yourself, but you definitely shouldn’t share them with a client or prospect. If a conversation is too taxing, consider asking a colleague for help or returning the call or chat request at a later date.
If you’ve got a cranky caller that is testing your charm, we’ve got a list of tips to help with that.
Keeping up with client and prospect requests can be tough for any growing business. You don’t need to do it all alone. When you work with Ruby, you gain a team of friendly, professional, thoroughly-trained customer support agents who are available when you need them.