Removing “Unfortunately” From Your Customer Service Vocabulary

no_can_do_480_gifA while back, Phone.com CTO Alon Cohen requested that we strike the word unfortunately from our customer service vocabulary.  Admittedly, I thought the request was a bit silly at the time.  Unfortunately is a very common word.  The problem is that it’s usually followed up with a “we can’t do that for you.”

One of our service standards at Phone.com is “Choice” which recognizes that we want to understand the needs of our customers and have the ability to meet those needs through flexibility and creativity.  One of the amazing things about Phone.com’s service is that we can tailor a phone system to meet the telecom needs of almost any customer.  Our customer service representatives are trained to help find creative solutions.  If for some reason our creativity hits a limit, we will be the first to admit it and help customers find solutions that work best for them; even if it means sending them to another company.

Fast forward to the present and I can see the wisdom in what Alon was saying.  You see, unfortunately is a mentality that if you are not careful will infect your customer service department.  Unfortunately breeds laziness, routine and lack of innovation.  In a previous blog post entitled “The Power of Let Me See What I Can Do” I propose a viable alternate to unfortunately.  When a customer asks you to do something, no matter how outlandish, your gut response should be “Let me see what I can do.”   When you begin to discipline yourself to respond with this simple phrase, even if you ultimately have to send the customer to another company, you will never have to say the word unfortunately again.

I invite you to try this on for size this week.  Yes it takes a bit more time and effort but I guarantee your customers will appreciate you for it.  In most cases, when you take unfortunately off the table you’ll receive great satisfaction in creatively solving problems for your customers.  Let us know how this goes.  Do you have any other forbidden words in customer service?

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Jeremy Watkin is the Head of Quality at FCR, the most respected outsource provider. He has more than 15 years of experience as a customer service professional. He is also the co-founder and regular contributor on the Customer Service Life. Jeremy has been recognized many times for his thought leadership. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn for more awesome customer service and experience insights.

12 comments

  • I avoid the word NO at all costs. I advise my clients to say, I sure wish I could do that, but let’s see what we CAN do for you.

    Customers want to hear what you CAN do, not what you CAN’T.

  • What about a request that can’t be done? Let’s say a company contacts me for a brand ambassadorship to represent a faith-based product, but I do not promote faith-based products. “I appreciate your interest in working together. Unfortunately. …” is all I can think of saying.

    • Jeremy Watkin

      Hey Jenn, Thanks for your comment. You bring up a great point. Typically we follow up the word “Unfortunately” with “there’s nothing I can do.” The challenge is to think of one or two things that you can do, even if you don’t end up doing business with them. Perhaps research one or two other companies that do brand ambassadorship for faith-based products and refer them over. It’s a small extra step. My goal with this post was to engrain this mentality in my customer service team.

  • While I can recognize the best intentions of avoiding saying “no” and “unfortunately” to customers, still I feel that it could be another extreme, especially in some cases. Sometimes it’s better to clearly say to the customer that something is not possible and save their and your own time. Yes, refer them to another company, help in whichever way you can, but why be afraid of saying no. There is nothing negative about a “no” unless we say it angrily )). Just my opinion.
    Thank you for your post, Jeremy. I find it mind challenging )).

    • Jeremy Watkin

      Thanks for your comment, Maria! You’re absolutely right. There are times we should say know. I think what I’m getting at is more from a front line customer service perspective where we might say “no” because we’re either not empowered or we simply don’t fully know what our system is capable of. I have found this to be true in a technical support arena. I think the old adage “1 to say yes, 2 to say no” can be applied here. I really appreciate you stopping by the blog!

  • I’m in tech support, we have clear lines drawn where we support only what we ship. When customers require support for a third party application, how would I rephrase “Unfortunately, X package is not something we provide, blah blah” ?

    • Hi San, great question! I would aim to keep it positive. Something like “Thank you so much for calling. I’m happy to help connect you with the right person to solve this for you. This is actually an issue that can be solved by contacting X. Here’s their contact information.” Just focus on connecting them with the resources that they need. Let me know if that makes sense.

  • I’m with online advertising and I have this customer who is requesting to make changes to their website however their account is already 4 months delinquent. Sooner or later their website will be taken down. How would I explain this in a positive way?? Thanks in advance. ♥♥♥

    • Miguel, this is a terrific question! I think before you answer it’s important to remember that if they aren’t willing to pay, it’s debatable as to whether or not they’re actually a customer. That being said, I recommend always approaching it by assuming that the customer has the best intentions. Here’s how I would start the email:

      Dear Customer, Thank you for taking the time to request this change to your website. I would love to help you make this update. Before we can move forward with your request, I noticed that your account is currently overdue and we need to get that payment taken care of. Let me know how you would like to pay for this. Once this is paid, I can work with you to update your website. Let me know if you have any questions.

      Depending on the customer, they may very well still be upset but this response keeps the interaction positive and you make it very clear that you are there to help the customer. Let me know how it goes!

  • i work in a casting company. we do vetting on who attends the events but when casting, it’s the client who does it and we take no control over it. what if a beautiful model user wanted to be cast to all events (but had a problem with a certain ambassador wc causes her not to get cast for some reason), but she cannot get cast. my agents say “Unfortunately, since the venues do their own castings, we/i am not authorized to cast users.” how do I make it look or sound nicer, since we really do not do the casting?

    • Hi Stephen, thanks for the question! I recommend focusing on what you can do and keeping it positive. Statements like “Thank you so much for your interest in being cast for all of the events.” Then maybe provide them with another option or two where they can try and get cast in the future. You are limited and it’s ok to tell them you can’t do something as long as you frame it with what you can do for them. Let me know how it goes. ~Jeremy

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