Don't Get Defensive — Avoid These 7 Phrases When Talking With an Angry Person Customer service training in this exclusive article on how to avoid defensive language—and what to replace it with when talking with a customer.

By Micah Solomon

Key Takeaways

  • You can never win an argument with a customer.
  • Even if you "win," your company still loses.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

I encounter a lot of great people in my line of work. Nice people. Friendly people. Gentle people.

The problem is that, by and large, people, including the people who work face-to-face or phone-to-phone with customers, are gentle, but only when dealing with gentle people. And unfortunately, that's not the entire picture of what you encounter in customer service work. Some customers are irritated. Upset. Disappointed. Angry. And the way these customers speak to you may be far from gentle.

Nonetheless, it's essential to avoid a defensive posture and use defensive language when interacting with and responding to customers, particularly at such emotional times.

Related: Do You Talk Too Much? You Need Brevity — Here are 6 Communication Strategies to Avoid Over-Talking

What is defensive language? And why is it such a problem?

Defensive language is what you use to push back against anything you perceive as an attack, which is exactly the wrong way to respond to a customer. Defensiveness makes you sound like you're gearing up for a fight, but, by definition, you can never win a fight with a customer. Never! If you "win" (and I use those quotation marks advisedly), your company loses! It's as simple as that.

So, if defensive responses are so counterproductive, why do we use them? My theory is that this goes back to how we interacted as children with our siblings — or, if we didn't have a sibling, with our peer group at school.

Related: This is the Worst Possible Way You Can Make A Customer Feel (and How To Avoid It)

Let's say my brother tries to get me to stop riding our new scooter so that he could have a turn, saying (with exaggeration, no doubt), "Micah, get off now and let me have a turn — you've been on the scooter all day."

So, reflexively, I snap back with defensive language (no doubt an exaggeration): "I have not. I just got on it. It's you who always hogs the scooter, not me!" If such counterattacks had any value when we were kids, the same approach can have catastrophic results now that we're adults. Especially when we're interacting with customers.

Let me repeat this: As kids, we're trying to win the scooter war. Or whatever the little war is, we think we're fighting. But as adults working with customers, here's that secret again:

You can never win an argument with a customer. If you "win" (you show them that they're wrong and you're right), your company still loses.

Related: 5 Life-Changing Customer Service Secrets You Can Learn From Five-Star Hotels

Avoid these defensive phrases

Here are some defensive phrases to avoid:

  1. "We would never have done that," or "Well, that could not possibly have been what happened." — (Here, they accuse you of something, and you immediately jump to a response of, in essence, "No, that's impossible.") And, it's true, the customer may have their facts wrong. Nonetheless, it's so much better if the both of you get to that conclusion slowly together.
  2. "That's not our fault."
  3. "That's not our responsibility."
  4. "No, that's not true." (Maybe it isn't true. But don't just reflexively say that.)
  5. "Well, you shouldn't have done that!" – or
  6. "You SHOULD've done such and such." — Or how about this one, which tries to use fancy language, maybe tries to be more polite, but fails:
  7. "I beg to differ." That's just a fancy way of saying, "You're wrong."

Related: Business Growth Stems From Getting the Right Customer Feedback. Here's How to Get It.

Alternatives to defensive language

Here are some neutral expressions that avoid accusation and even encourage collaboration:

  • "Do I hear you that you expected such and such?"
  • "If I've got this correct, you feel that Jim told you that your vehicle would be ready to pick you up at ____."
  • "It sounds like we really failed to convey the blah, blah."

And when you need to start suggesting some alternative approaches or alternative theories of what actually happened:

"Perhaps" is a good word, as is "Alternatively":

"Perhaps Julia said such and such," or "Alternatively, Julia was perhaps referring to what would happen if we'd heard from you with a definite request for pickup."

Getting these instinctive responses out of your customer service approach can take practice. It's not all that easy to avoid blurting one of these out when a customer is in your face or on the phone line, accusing your company, and possibly you, of dastardly deeds. But it's essential.

Related: How to Turn an Upset Customer Into Your Company's Best Advocate

Micah Solomon

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

Customer Service Transformation Expert

Customer service transformation expert, consultant, author, keynote speaker, proprietor of Known in technology, patient experience, B2B, retail, hospitality industry, retail banking. Named "World's #1 customer service transformation expert" by Inc. Magazine.

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