The Dirtiest Word In Customer Service

Last Updated Oct 31, 2011 2:56 PM EDT


If there's one word that stabs me in the ears and makes me don my Customer Service Avenger tights and cape, it's "can't." It's a filthy word that should be avoided at all costs.

I had a series of horrible "can't" experiences last week when a delayed flight caused me to miss a connection.

The first came when I asked the airline agent if I could get a hotel and/or meal voucher, because the delay was caused by the company. The agent (without looking up at me) said "we can't do that." Staying as calm, smiling and pleasant as I could, I asked why not, and was told that it's just not done anymore. I replied that it was just done for me recently by the same airline, and was told "well, I don't know about that, but I can't." I continued to press (at this point on principle, not because of the $89), and eventually another agent, slouching wearily in the corner, told my guy to enter a code in the computer, and out came a hotel and meal voucher. Whaddya know.

From there I went to get my luggage and was told "we can't get it," and that it was going to be checked on my new flight out in the morning. I replied that I was told I could get it until 10PM, and it was 9:45. The agent told me "sometimes the guys leave early, so I can't get it." I asked to speak to a supervisor, who (looking at her colleague instead of me), said "we can't." Again, I pressed, pointing out that the airport was packed with travelers, luggage was moving all over the belts, and that if someone cared enough to help, I'll bet they could grab mine (and again, I've been through this enough to know for sure that it can be done). The supervisor rolled her eyes at me, got on her walkie-talkie, and asked a baggage handler if he "wouldn't mind doing a reclaim." He said "yeah, I guess not," and moments later out came my bag. Howsabout that.

I finally boarded the hotel shuttle an hour after my flight landed-at least 30 minutes of which was spent just dealing with "can'ts."

Clearly, there are some things in life and business that actually aren't possible. But in my experience, the truly impossible is a very rare exception, and "can't" more often means "won't" or "I don't wanna." Yet there is almost always a way to help someone, or at the very least show a genuine interest and make every effort.

Even when a situation is not easily resolved, a caring and motivated person can usually find a way to help. There is always an alternative to the C-word. One of these three, or some variation to suit your business, will fit almost any circumstance:
1. "Sure I can!" or "I'd be delighted to": These are obviously the ideal answers, and need no explanation. If you can help someone, skip the runaround and get right to the helping part.

2. "Let me see what I can do for you": Use this-with sincerity-when you are honestly not sure if you can do exactly what the customer is asking, but you are determined to find some way to help. Customers love it when they see you are on their side rather than defending a company or policy, and will be much more receptive to whatever resolution you can offer.

3. "Unfortunately I'm a little limited in what I can do on that one, but here are three alternatives... hopefully one will be OK for you?": Use this when you are truly unable to do exactly what the customer is asking. She might not like it, might not accept it; you can't please everyone, but your odds are dramatically better if you don't just say "tough luck."

You may think that this is semantics-just saying "can't" using other words. And there are times when that is absolutely true, but that doesn't make it wrong. Customer service is about quality communication, compassion and a desire to help. Should a clothing salesman tell a customer "let me go grab a different size for you," or "you're too fat for those?" Both mean the same thing, but one is customer-friendly and the other is a slap in the face.

You can find an alternative to "can't," if you care, try hard enough, and have a company/culture that encourages it. But in those rare instances when there's really no solution, make sure the customer knows and believes you cared and tried, do something (anything) nice for him if you're able, and whatever you do, don't flip him the C-word; it can only make things worse.

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    Michael Hess is founder and CEO of Skooba Design. He is also a public speaker and advisor, obsessed with customer service, communication, and culture. Read the philosophies that make Michael tick here, and visit his website and new Facebook page for information on speaking engagements and more.

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