Tragic Words and Phrases: What NOT to Say to a Customer

By Diane Berenbaum and Tom Larkin

NOTE: This is an excerpt from our book, How To Talk To Customers: Create A Great Impression Every Time With MAGIC®  published by Jossey-Bass.

We all recognize that the words we use can impact how others see us. But every day, many of us use phrases that can chip away at our credibility—and a customer's service experience.

We call these Tragic phrases. They are phrases that:

  • Put distance between you and a customer
  • Create uneasiness
  • Imply a lack of action or responsibility
  • Are impersonal or vague
  • Are inappropriate slang

A Tragic Moment

Have a look at a Tragic experience that a friend of ours had to go through:

  • “I needed an audio cassette recorder, so I went to a well-known electronics establishment. A store associate helped me select one he thought would meet my needs. This device came packaged in a molded plastic casing that must be cut apart to remove the device for actual use.
  • “The performance of this device was nothing short of terrible. I elected to exchange it for a different model. 
  • “When I approached the counter with the new recorder, I had to wave an associate over from the other side of the counter as he appeared to be ignoring me. He then motioned to the manager, who came to ‘help' me. The manager's name tag had ‘Elite Status' printed on it.
  • “He asked me a number of questions on how I was using the recorder. As I answered his questions he began to replace the batteries and proceeded to test the machine. (I was beginning to feel like he thought I didn't know how to use a tape recorder.) Eventually, I reiterated that the device wasn't broken and that I just wanted to exchange it for this different model.
  • “The manager replied that for him to do anything for me, he would need the original packaging. I let him know that I did not have that because I had to cut it open and that that packaging would now be useless to him anyway.
  • “He then held up my receipt displaying the back side full of fine print—literally, right in my face. He said: ‘If you had read our return policy, you would know that all returns require their original packaging or they are not accepted.' In disbelief, I said, ‘I had to destroy the case just to get the device out. That package is useless!'
  • “He then reluctantly said he'd be willing to discuss it further if I could at least produce the owner's manual. But until that happened, he wouldn't help me.
  • “At that point, I gave up and went across the street to the competition.
  • “I'll never buy from that particular location of this electronics store again. Apparently, Mr. Elite Status let his nametag go to his head.”

Where's the “Tragic” in this anecdote? Let us count the ways:

  • Confrontational words: “If you had read our return policy…”
  • Condescending questions that suggested our friend couldn't operate a simple tape recorder.
  • Outright refusal to help.
There are additional examples—both in speech as well as in action—but this incident of Tragic behavior is about as subtle as getting beaned with a two-by-four. From the very outset of the conversation, the manager appears to be steadfast in his overall posture of refusal—a refusal to listen to our friend and appreciate his perspective, let alone provide any alternatives.

Also notice:

  • There's no attempt at any type of personal contact or interaction—rather, an ongoing deferral to abstract “policy” that's made to sound like one of the Ten Commandments.
  • There's no specificity geared to the situation at hand. Instead of asking specific questions geared to identifying why this particular machine didn't fit the customer's needs, the manager gave the impression that our friend was some sort of nitwit who—provided he had even a sliver of intelligence—could easily make this tape recorder work properly.
  • Certainly, there isn't a hint of empathy to be found anywhere—no attempt whatsoever on the manager's part to find common ground from which to build a fair and equitable solution.
The bottom line of this series of tragic missteps – our friend's concern was never addressed.

And, the most tragic result of all – our friend will never step inside that store ever again and will likely tell others of this unpleasant experience (after all, he told us!)

Tragic, indeed.

Tragic Words to Avoid

To take your understanding of Tragic words and expressions further, here's a sampling of actual Tragic phrases we have heard in customer interactions. We've categorized them as sloppy, non-committed or authoritative. See how many are familiar to you.


  •  “Hold on.” or “Hang on.”
  • “What's your problem?”
  •  “Just a sec”
  •  “Here's what I'm gonna do…”
  • “Pull you up” (on my screen)


  • “I can't do that.” or “We can't do that.”
  • “He's very busy now.”
  • “That's not my department. You'll have to speak with someone else.”
  • “I don't know.”
  • “We'll have to call you back.”


  • “You have to…/You should have…”
  • “That's against company policy.”
  • “Calm down.”
  • “Like I said…”
  • “If you had read your manual...”
There are a variety of unfortunate themes and characteristics that weave their mischief through these phrases. First off, they're all impersonal—instead of phrases that bring you closer to the customer, these suggest a sense of distance, a lack of connection.

There's also a common sense of rigidity—a “my way or the highway” intransigence. It's a communications form of brinksmanship. Either you can like it, or you can lump it. End of story.


Subtle Tragic Words and Phrases

Unlike our earlier Tragic example that was about as low-key as a nuclear blast, these are a bit more subtle. What makes the following phrases tragic? The speakers' implied messages shown in the right column, are good clues.

     “As soon as possible” “When I get around to it.”
     “I'll try.” “Not sure I can do it.”
     “The truth is…” “I probably shouldn't tell you this."
     “To be honest...”  “I was lying up until now.”
     “Hopefully…”   “Who really knows?”

How to Avoid Being Tragic

Having gone through a variety of Tragic words and phrases, the question justifiably comes up: “Okay, what can you do about them?”

First, pinpoint the Tragic words and phrases you tend to use.

Then, choose alternative language and practice it in your conversations. For instance:

  • Instead of: “You've got the wrong number.”
  • Use: “I'm sorry, you've reached the billing department. I would be happy to connect you to…”
  • Instead of: “She not here right now.”
  • Use: “She's in a meeting now and I expect her back by three. I'll see that she receives your message then. Or, if you prefer, I would be happy to put you through to her voicemail.”

These examples show how being personal, being specific and showing empathy—can transform any phrase, however Tragic, into one that establishes a genuine connection between you and the customer.

On a final note, think of some Tragic phrases, tech speak or jargon you use every day. Jot them down and see how you can make them MAGIC. Remember, the key to moving your conversations from Tragic to MAGIC is awareness and practice.

Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .

Tom Larkin is president, CEO and co-owner of Communico Ltd. and has more than thirty years of experience as a consultant, coach, facilitator and business owner. He is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® and is also a part-time professor at Fairfield University.
Before and After
Before and After
Just one "tragic" contact can influence your customers' perception of your company (and their buying decisions). Listen to the difference MAGIC® can make.