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

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, our reputation—and a customer’s service experience.

We call these Tragic phrases, and they:

  • 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 went through:

  • She went to a well-known electronics store to buy headphones. A store associate helped her select a pair that came in a molded plastic casing that must be cut apart to remove them for actual use. 
  •  The product was terrible. She decided to exchange them for a different pair. 
  •  When she went back to the store, the manager came to help her. His badge said ‘Elite Status’ under his name. 
  •  The manager asked her a lot of questions to see if she knew how to use them, or if they were broken. She told him they were not broken and that she wanted to exchange them for a different pair. 
  •  The manager said he would need the original packaging. She said she had to cut the package open and it was destroyed. 
  •  The manager held up her receipt and said: ‘If you had read our return policy, you would know that all returns require their original packaging or they are not accepted.’  He then said she would need to return the owner’s manual for a replacement.
  •  At that point, she gave up and went to the competition.

Where’s the “Tragic” in this anecdote? Here we go:

  • Confrontational words: “If you had read our return policy…” 
  • Condescending questions that suggested our friend couldn’t operate a simple pair of headphones 
  • Outright refusal to help. 

There are additional examples—both in speech as well as in action. From the very outset of the conversation, the manager appears to be steadfast in his overall posture of refusal—a refusal to listen and appreciate his customer’s perspective, let alone provide any alternatives.

Also notice:

  • There was no attempt at any type of personal contact or interaction—rather, an ongoing deferral to abstract “policy” 
  • There isn’t a hint of empathy there—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 – the company lost a customer forever.

Tragic words to avoid

To take your understanding of Tragic words and expressions further, here are samples 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 Tragic themes and characteristics woven through those phrases. First, 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” attitude. 

Subtle Tragic words and phrases

Unlike our earlier Tragic example that was blatant, the following are more subtle, but just as damaging.What makes the following phrases tragic? The speakers’ implied messages shown in the right column, are good clues.

How to avoid being Tragic

So how can you avoid using Tragic words and phrases?

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.

1 Comment

  1. Jeannette Behrens on April 18, 2022 at 9:57 AM

    Fantastic! It takes practice to use the correct words, to change your mindset to speak with personal and authoritative to do the verbal communication well.

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