Even though we’ve been told since childhood that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me,” the truth is that words carry tremendous weight. A better piece of time-honored advice might be, “Think before you speak,” because when you say the wrong thing, you can’t just take it back.
When you’re working with clients, you want to be honest, of course, but you want to take extra care to phrase things in a way that shows you’re an understanding, agreeable person who values the opinions and business of the people who have hired you. The wrong words can damage relationships, but they can also damage the possibility of any future business. In your dealings with clients, you always want to choose your words carefully, and there are a few phrases that you’ll want to cut from your repertoire altogether. Here are six of them, along with some phrases you can use in their place.
- “I can’t do that.”
While it may be true that you can’t do something a client has asked of you, a response like this is just a thinly veiled variation of no. Rather than tell your client no, work with him or her to come up with a viable alternative; brainstorm options, find another way to fulfill a request, and make your client feel like you’re doing everything you can to satisfy his or her needs. A better response might be, “While that’s not doable considering our time and budget constraints, here’s what we can do.” Then, give your client one or more choices that are attractive and effective.
- “I’ll look into it.”
This one’s a phrase to cut from your professional vocabulary because it’s just so vague. What exactly do you mean when you say you’ll “look into” something? When will you look into it? What’s your objective, and when will your client hear back from you? Instead of giving this unclear response, be as specific as you can. A better thing to say might be, “I’ll investigate this matter further, find a good answer to your question, and get back to you by 10am tomorrow.” It’s specific, it addresses the client’s needs, and it puts a deadline on how long you’ll take to complete your research.
- Any phrase that uses “I” when you really mean “we.”
When you work with a client, you’re a team. As you undoubtedly remember from grade school, the proper pronoun when talking about you plus other people is “we.” Using “I” every once in awhile is fine for little tasks is OK (“I called the newspaper,” “I think this will work,” etc.), but for decisions and accomplishments made by the group, use “we.” It reinforces the idea that you’re all working toward the same goal, which can help keep the mood positive when minor disagreements arise.
- Phrases that emphasize the client as “you.”
Following the previous point, using “you” to refer to your client, especially when it’s in a sentence that emphasizes something potentially negative, can drive a wedge between you and weaken your relationship. For example, a phrase like, “You said you would have this done by today” may seem innocent enough, especially if you believe it’s true, but the client hears that he or she is at fault. To minimize finger pointing, you might start a phrase with, “It was my understanding,” then ask if you misunderstood. It conveys the same message without explicitly placing blame on someone else.
- “I’m so sorry.”
This one may need some explanation; if you were wrong, you should absolutely apologize. However, don’t just leave it at that! After apologizing, ask how you can make the situation better. This shows your client that not only do you understand that something was not done properly, but you are committed to making it right.
- Swearing in any way, shape, or form.
This one should seem obvious — of course you shouldn’t swear in front of a client! — but sometimes the relationships you develop with clients becomes comfortable and friendly (and sometimes, if meetings are held over meals, alcohol is involved). When that happens, you may feel like you can relax a little and talk with a client like you’d talk to your friends. Resist the temptation to do that! A friendly relationship with your client is OK, but you still need to be professional. It keeps your credibility high, and it makes clients feel good about recommending your business to their colleagues.
The key to effective client communication is staying positive. These six recommendations may seem minor, but they’re small changes that can have big implications. Give them a try — we think you’ll be pleased with the results.