Fast Company is at it again!

Articles like today’s are the epitome of “light pop-psych content,” but they do serve a purpose. In today’s case—and others of the “X words that make you sound [adjective]” variety—that purpose is getting you to stop and think about word choices and what they can imply, fairly or unfairly.

This kind of careful semantic thinking is a valuable copywriting skill.

To list Fast Co’s seven phrases real quick…

Here’s What I Can Do For You
I’ll Find Out
Can You…?
Let’s Solve This
I’m Glad You Like It
I Want To Help
I’m Happy I Was Able To Help

A few annotations on this collection…

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1️⃣ In service, avoid The Flat No (as one of our bosses once called it). In other words: if the customer wants something that you can’t give, don’t just say “no” or “I can’t do that.” Instead, you say something like I can’t do that, but here’s the closest thing I —could— do for you.

Notice that you’re not trying to justify or explain the gap. You’re just stating it plainly and then redirecting the customer’s attention—and in our experience, it usually works quite smoothly.

2️⃣ If they still want to backtrack to But Why Not, smile bravely and put on a good show. Because we forecast an 80% chance of childish behavior no matter the customer’s age and, at that point, your job is to take it for the team while looking sane and reasonable for other customers in earshot.

True Story: My worst, most irrational customer tongue-lashing as a restaurant server caused all four of the neighboring tables to tip above 30%. Trust me when I say that this was a statistically significant difference.

3️⃣ Most people can tell when you’re making s**t up, so… don’t. To be clear, there’s no extracting BS from service industries; it’s how strangers get along amidst weird power dynamics. All the same, the subtle art of Real-Time Service BS doesn’t have much room for bald-faced lies.

You’re not omniscient, so there will always be questions you can’t answer. It’s not about your pride; it’s about guiding the customer to the info they need. Better to look a tiny bit dumb for a second than to look like a prideful snob whose answers aren’t trustworthy.

Tell them what you know AND what you don’t know. Learn how to smoothly massage that balance. And whatever you know you don’t know, learn it.

4️⃣ Don’t be afraid to ask (your fellow adults) straight questions. As simple as it may sound, we’re glad the list included Can you…? because we really don’t understand how people (it seems) started thinking of that question like it’s a military draft.

Think back to grammar class and the annoying “Can I vs. May I go to the bathroom” distinction. Asking someone if they —can— do something is not the same as asking them to volunteer, much less conscripting them to do it.

Simply and literally, it means: “Are you ABLE to do this? Is this possible for you, and if so, is it reasonable?” These are simple, adult questions to ask.

Just be careful with the tone. That’s the part most people get wrong, even when the words themselves are fair and simple.

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