Patrick Speijers
Patrick Speijers
Nov 2, 2012

4 words you must never say to customers

4 words you must never say to customers
I happened to catch a rerun of the Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey film ‘The Negotiator’.

Samuel L. Jackson plays an irate hostage negotiator (as opposed to his other films where he plays an irate FBI agent, an irate assassin, an irate leader of S.H.I.E.L.D., and a surprisingly calm Jedi Master) who is falsely accused for some reason or other. Jackson takes some people hostage, because what other way is there to deal with false accusations, and asks to talk to Kevin Spacey.

While waiting for Kevin Spacey to turn up, he talks to a junior hostage negotiator, who is nervous, stutters, and, when asked a question, answers ‘No’. This leads to a whole ‘Talking to Hostage Takers 101’ speech from Jackson, that you should never say ‘No’ to a hostage taker. That ‘No’ shuts off all avenues of negotiation, leaving only one option - to shoot a hostage.

Now, your customers are probably not all THAT dangerous, but still, there are certain words that you should never say.

Are you ready? Just don’t say ‘No’ :)

1. ‘Yes’

Weren’t expecting that, were you? But it’s true. You don’t tell a customer ‘Yes’, unless you really mean it. For example, if a customer asks you if you’re going to implement a new feature. You might think that saying ‘Yes’ automatically will make that customer happy. It will, but only temporarily.

When they come back next week, and you have to fumble for an answer that turns into a ‘maybe’, or ‘it on our roadmap for the future’ - that customer won’t be so happy anymore. A straight up ‘No’ is far better.

Another option is to answer like Asana - we don’t plan to do this, but we’ll make a note of it.

2. ‘Free’

Another positive word, in theory, is actually a serious problem when it comes to replying to customers. It doesn’t even matter in what context.

if you are a freelance web-designer, and you’ve just been asked how much a minor change in the logo you’ve designed will cost, and you answer ‘Free’, you’ve just shot yourself in the foot. Not only will you have to spend the next few hours changing designs, the NEXT time your customer has the same request, they’ll assume the ‘Free’ still applies. Imagine you sell t-shirts, and you’ve just said ‘Free’ when someone asks you how much to send it over to their house. Shipping costs money, however you look at it. So when you say free, realize that the customer expects shipping to be free the next time also.

Of course, offering something for free when you really mean it (take Facebook, for example), isn’t a bad idea :) That's why Robin introduces the free Robin Starter edition. For 0 euro, always.

3. ‘No’

You knew this one was coming, right? :) ‘No’ is never a good word to say to your customers, especially in this day and age, when they not only expect a ‘Yes’, they also have plenty of ways to express their disappointment with your perceived bad service.

‘No’, exactly as Samuel L. Jackson pointed out in the film, closes off all other venues of negotiation. It’s a ‘take it or leave it’ position, one that forces a decision on your customer. And today, certainly in the online world where people usually have an abundance of options to choose from, with no geographical or time limitation that brick-and-mortar shops would impose, you’ll find that customers will be very quick to choose other shops, ones that will probably say ‘Yes’ (and mean it, of course, see Point 1).

4. ‘Never’

‘Never’ (and its cousin, ‘Always’) is a funny word. You can use it in a positive context and a negative context - and they can both have the opposite effect of what you want to achieve.

When a customer asks if you will ever stock socks, and you say ‘Never!’, you’re basically predicting the future. What if, for example, there’s a sock shortage next season? And you’ll stock them because they sell like hot cakes. Customers that you told you will ‘Never!!’ do that, won’t even come back and check. You’ve lost them for good.

The other version is just as bad - ‘We will NEVER charge for our services’ simply means ‘we won’t charge for our services unless we have to’. When you start charging for your services, then you’ll get a lot of irate customers, and probably a high abandonment rate. You said you were ‘never’ going to charge, and you lied about that, so who knows what else you’ve lied about?

If you do decide to go with ‘never’ or ‘always’ - just make sure that you will always back your words, and not change your minds halfway through. Customers will remember.

I’ll leave you with a nice story about ‘Never’, ‘Always’ and a smart move.

In 2010, the Grill’d burger chain launched a campaign that was aimed at university students - using a printout coupon, they could get two burgers for the price of one. Being university students, of course, the coupon went viral, and Grill’d, who was going to ‘always’ honour the coupon, and ‘never’ turn students away, simply cancelled the coupon offer.

Nando's saw this, and immediately posted a blog that promised to fulfil the Grill'd offer, saying "we'll make sure you're well fed, not fed up!", and they accepted all Grill’d coupons that came their way.

Grill'd apologised, but it didn’t really help them - and Nando's had already done enough to gain some new happy clients.



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