“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”President Dwight D. Eisenhower

In the world of customer service, many would argue that pure “scripts” are the antithesis of great service. That is to say, customer service should be a conversation rather than a cold, lifeless script.

However, given the variable nature of interacting with customers, it’s easy to see how support center champs can certainly benefit from some forward thinking in dealing with tough scenarios.

This is where flexible responses—in lieu of pure scripts—can be quite useful. They allow reps to have examples of what to say to customers in a tough situation, but also give them the flexibility to adapt and add their own personality.

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We know that great service benefits from having good systems, so below I’ll outline some of my favorite "field-tested" type of responses to tough customer questions that you can use and adjust when you’re providing support.

1. When you don’t know

You shouldn’t beat yourself up for not knowing an answer. After all, a support rep’s responsibility is to have the tenacity to make things right, not to be perfect (especially true if you’re new).

The mistake many support reps make, however, is in using the knee-jerk “I don’t know” response, which doesn’t help the customer. The customer may be sympathetic that you don’t know, but they’re not interested in hearing about it.

Instead, try the following:

"Does the ‘Premium’ package come with ______? Great question, let me find that out for you right now!”

Placing the emphasis on the customer’s needs over your own situation (“I don’t know, I’m new here…”) lets them know that it doesn’t matter that you don’t know the answer, because you’re going to do whatever you need to in order to find out for them.

2. When an item isn’t available

No eCommerce store owner or support champion likes to tell a customer that an item isn’t currently available, but there is a much better way to go about it.

One of the most important skills in interacting with customers is the use of positive language to help avoid accidental knee-jerk reactions.

Here's an example: let's say a customer contacts you with interest in a particular product, but that product happens to be backordered until next month.

  • Without positive language: I can't get you that product until next month; it is back-ordered and unavailable at this time."
  • With positive language: "That product will actually be available next month. I can place the order for you right now and make sure that it is sent to you as soon as it reaches our warehouse!"

Positive languages replaces negative phrases (“I can’t…”) and instead places emphasis on the solution, which is what the customer actually cares about.

Try finding places in your response where a lot of negative language is present (“We don’t do that”) and see where positive language can be substituted.

3. When transferring a customer

There isn’t a single consumer out there who likes hearing, “Please hold while we transfer you. Your call is very important to us.”

The problem is, sometimes you do need to transfer customers in order to better help them. The problem is that many businesses don’t seek to help customers understand why they are being transferred.

Here’s a typical unappealing response some reps use to transfer people:

"Sir/ma’am, my apologies, but I’m going to have to transfer your call to Department XYZ.”

Annoying! As a customer, my gut reaction is to think that the wheel of misfortune has begun, and that I’m going to get passed around and treated like another hassle.

Imagine using this language instead:

"Hello Mr./Mrs. _____! Let’s get this problem resolved for you. I’m going to transfer you to our _____ specialist who is the best-suited person to answer your question.”

Hearing that I’m being sent to the resident expert and knowing that the rep who is sending me has my problem in mind is much more reassuring than the vague “Sorry, you’re getting transferred,” response that most companies use.

Few customers will jump for joy because of a transferred call (no matter how you handle it), but it’s better to assure them that the action was taken in their favor, in order to solve their current problem.


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4. Feature requests that won’t work

Customers can often have some valuable insights on how your product is used and how it could be improved, but your product’s vision is your responsibility, thus the final call is left to you.

If it is very obvious that a feature request a customer has sent in won’t make the cut, you have to be able to tell them so. Saying, “We’ll take a look!” gives false hope that can end up with a customer checking in weeks later, only to be disappointed again.

The truth is, you don’t need to be worried about a mass exodus of customers just because you regularly say “no” to many product features.

As someone who regularly answers feedback requests for Help Scout, here is the language that I often use to tell customers a feature just isn’t the right fit:

"Hey ______, I really appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts with us. As of this time however, [Feature X] isn’t the perfect fit, and we have no immediate plans to implement it. We do have some other exciting features on our plate, and should anything change about your request, we’ll make sure you are the first to know."

If you’re using a simple feedback system like Trello to keep track of past requests, adding an email is easy, so if your stance on a certain feature does change in the future, it becomes a simple process to notify customers via email.

5. Favors that cannot be done

"Can’t you bend the rules just this once?!”

To be frank, most requests from customers are very reasonable, and every effort should be made to make them happy.

Bob Farrell describes this as “giving them the pickle,” a phrase which refers to a letter he received from an unhappy customer who wasn’t able to get an extra pickle for his hamburger.

We call these “frugal wows,” but the idea is the same—a small request fulfilled can often leave a very positive impact on a customer, which is why it's almost always worth it to just 'give them the pickle.'

But what about requests that you truly cannot say 'Yes' to? I can give you a very candid story of when this really mattered to me: I was checking in to a very tiny beach hotel with a few of my friends, one of whom had a severe allergy to cats. I vividly remember watching this older couple at the desk while we were checking in, pleading with the employee to let their cat stay (the policy was “No Pets”).

"Please let Mr. Sprinkles stay!”

(I don’t actually remember what they said, but you get the idea.)

If the front desk employee had given way to their request, he would have (unknowingly) made our group upset, trading one potentially unhappy customer for an even bigger problem.

I remember being really impressed with how he handled the situation, and I’ll paraphrase his response below:

"Mr. and Mrs. ______, as much as I like fulfilling our customers’ requests, I’m afraid that the “No Pets” policy we have in place is too important, as it deals with the safety and comfort of other customers. Can I perhaps call around for locations where your cat might be able to stay?"

A stellar response to a pretty wacky request (c’mon, most people should know you can’t bring a pet to a hotel). It can be tough learning how to say no, but bending too much for a single request can result in an even worse situation.

Remember that a customer's perception of your service quality is greatly affected by how attentive, thoughtful and sincere you are. In an awkward scenario where you simply have to refuse a request, showcasing your empathy and a willingness to find an alternative is one of the best ways to lessen the sting of saying 'No'.

6. When a product is defective

Having a purchase come up short is very disheartening from the customer's perspective. I'm sure we've all ran into this scenario: after finally convincing ourselves to pull the trigger on a purchase, we wait with excitement until it’s delivered…only to have it arrive broken.

We all internally recognize that even great companies can’t build and ship everything perfectly, but it’s just so frustrating to be the person on the receiving end of a dud.

Showing empathy to the customer’s situation thus becomes very important, following with an immediate explanation of how you’re going to fix the situation. Consider the following example:

"I’m so sorry about that, that’s very disappointing! There might have been a slight mistake in the manufacturing process, or perhaps it was damaged while being shipped. Can I send a new one out to you right away?”

While long, it completes three important objectives: it empathizes with the customer’s frustrating experience, it explains what the problem might be (instead of having a customer assume, “we make crap products”), and it offers a clear and immediate solution.

Depending on what you sell and how you conduct business, you might also add, “or should I send you a full refund?” Either way, know that in this situation it’s the ability to relate with a customer that counts.

7. Closing with a customer

One of my favorite tips in dealing with customers is to make sure that you always “close” a conversation. This has nothing to do with closing a sale, and everything to do with making sure the conversation with a customer is complete.

This is important because as you’ll recall, the average business only hears from 4% of its dissatisfied customers. You needn’t add to that harrowing statistic by leaving people you’ve helped with an unsolved dilemma.

Your willingness to ensure that a customer is leaving perfectly happy shows them three important things:

  1. You care about getting it right.
  2. You're willing to keep going until you get it right.
  3. The customer is the one who determines what “right” is.

Try ending your conversation with a phrase like the following:

"Excellent! I’m glad we were able to get that sorted out for you. Before you go, was there anything else I could assist you with today? I’m happy to help.”

Believe it or not, there are some people who might walk away with another problem if they aren’t asked about it. Adding, “I’m happy to help” is a very small gesture you can make that has a big impact: it shows the customer that asking for another favor isn’t being a burden; in fact, you’d be happy to do it. In some cases, this gesture is what prompts the customer to leave a positive review for your business.

8. Talking to severely angry customers

Support champions are often required to act like lightning rods: to take the brunt of an emotional, angry customer despite the fact that it is not their fault.

Sometimes this anger from customers is unjustified, and other times they have a cause for their actions. Either way, it’s often quite hard to win back a severely angry customer (even the best businesses can’t make everyone happy), but the smart folks at Telephone Doctor have a great system called “ASAP” for dealing with these most difficult of customers:

  • Apologize sincerely: “I’m sorry” is a mandatory response in these situations, even if it isn’t your fault. Consider your “I’m truly sorry about that” as a personal apology to the customer that the experience wasn’t up to their expectations, not that you are to blame.
  • Sympathize: As you might have guessed, many times angry customers are just as interested (if not more interested) in hearing that someone empathizes with their situation over getting the actual problem fixed. Even if you cannot understand a customer (“Why are they so angry?”), you can imagine how you’d like to be treated if you happened to be that upset. Even small phrases like, “I understand how upsetting that must have been,” can have an impact on getting the customer to realize that you’re on their team in this pursuit to make things right.
  • Accept responsibility: As the ambassador of your company, you accept responsibility for the customer’s unhappiness. Again, this doesn’t make you “at fault,” and it doesn’t give the customer leeway to demand whatever they want, but it does give them someone to talk to instead of being angry at a faceless company (i.e., “I’m very sorry that our product has been so disappointing thus far, Mrs. _____, but if you stay on the line I’ll make sure that we get this situation fixed for you.”).
  • Prepare to help: With angry customers, the actual 'fix' tends to take up a small portion of the entire support process. Placing a replacement order likely takes you very little time, but that fix doesn’t address the underlying problem of the customer’s frustration and unhappiness. These 'emotional' fixes are often the most important element: refunding someone may take you 15 seconds, but did you make sure enough time was spent trying to help them calm down and leave happy?

It’s hard to come up with a perfect solution for a customer in this state, and know that even if you handle things perfectly, some people simply cannot be appeased. Don’t let that stop you from making your best effort.

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Gregory Ciotti

Gregory Ciotti

Greg is a writer, marketing strategist and alum of Help Scout. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.