If "No Problem" is a Problem, You’ve Failed at Customer Service

Brian Cantor

If a customer service representative’s slightly-errant word choice is capable of damaging your customer experience, odds are good that the experience is already broken.

To people who know me personally or at least read my writing, the aforementioned declaration is likely a surprising one. Many of my most popular Call Center IQ pieces are the product of overanalyzing and/or overscrutinizing customer service minutiae. I consistently correct people who use "good" when they mean "well." I experience legitimate pain when awards recipients bastardize the word "humbled" to improperly describe their sentiment.

I, of all people, should staunchly support the notion that trivial details of how agents communicate with customers can significantly alter customer perception.

And, to some extent, I absolutely do.

But I cannot support one of the highlight contentions in Todd Lapidus’ "When ‘No Problem’ is a Problem."

In the article, Lapidus briefly details an experience at a national retail store. An employee provided the desired assistance in locating a product, but when he expressed his gratitude, she replied, "No problem." That left a sour taste in his mouth and effectively ruined the experience

Frankly, the hubbub over "no problem" as an improper conversational phrase has always eluded me. In a world that can readily say things like "a-whole-nother" and egregiously mispronounce the FRENCH word "forte" as "for-tay," using "no problem" as a response to "thank you" seems, at most, like a drop in the bucket.

In the specific instance highlighted by Lapidus, he argues that "no problem" reflects a sentiment of disinterest, noting that the customer interaction was of no importance to the agent who is now "glad I am done with you." I can just as easily argue that "no problem" is an invitation, a vow that a support inquiry is never a burden and that the customer should feel free to approach an agent any time he has an issue. It can also be a sign of confidence; "thanks to our intuitive store design and customer-centric agents, getting you what you need is … you guessed it … no problem."

As a customer, the last thing I want to know is that getting what I want is a problem for the organization. For some reason, it appears Lapidus is mentally translating "no problem" as "you’re not important." The two, it can easily be argued, are in fact polar opposites when it comes to customer service.

But, as Lapidus himself admits, his issue is not so much with the specific phrase (granted, he does spend quite a bit of time attacking the phrase directly) as it is with the customer service shortcoming he believes it represents. He sees an agent’s overuse of empty phrases as a sign that he does not truly value his engagement with the customer and thus a danger to the organization’s customer experience.

When agents, who represent the first and sometimes only "face" of the organization, demonstrate indifference, they suggest that the brand, too, is indifferent to the customer’s wants and needs. In an era of "competing on the customer experience," that suggestion is as damaging as it gets.

Careful to cover his bases, Lapidus notes that overly-scripted "customer service speak" can be just as detrimental to the customer experience. His advice is for organizations to thoroughly educate agents on the brand promise and then empower them to communicate that promise with inspirational, personalized customer dialogue.

At face value, it is again hard to disagree with this contention. Frankly, if there is one lesson to be had from many of my own articles on customer service, it is that we need agents who operate as empowered humans who can personally empathize with customer issues and passionately deliver a meaningful solution. We do not need robotic agents who simply provide a live person alternative to IVR. Avoiding scripted language, and yes, even "empty" phrases and conversational clichês, is indeed helpful in establishing the human element of customer care.

But Lapidus’ advice is actually self-defeating. In the process of condemning overly-scripted, impersonal customer service interactions, Lapidus actually underscores why so many organizations are attracted to "scripted" call center interactions and why so few agents feel empowered to take ownership of their customer engagements.

Central to Lapidus’ argument is the notion that certain speech patterns and phrases can signal poor customer-centricity. That, consequently, implies that speech in and of itself can strengthen or weaken a customer interaction. Use the right words, and you win a customer’s loyalty and inspire him to work with your organization in the future. Use the wrong words, and you risk forever damaging ties with that customer who now realizes he is a "number" rather than "partner" to your organization.

That is, ironically, the very logic that drives call centers and customer service teams to push agents towards scripted language and stiff, impersonal interactions. It is the very logic that makes agents skeptical about going into business for themselves and thus drives them to keep interactions "by the books."

It makes organizations want to do everything in their power to control and dictate the content of conversations to assure "optimal" interactions with customers. And when it comes to creating a personal, unique, valuable customer experience at every touch point with every customer, control is the enemy of success.

Moreover, by placing conversational content on such a pedestal, Lapidus risks sending the wrong message about the customer experience. While I respect his analysis enough to know that he does, at the end of the day, get customer service, I believe his approach in the cited article reverses the correct one.

If we return to his original example, he seems to suggest that an otherwise-successful customer interaction was ruined by the use of "no problem." This places supreme emphasis on word choice, essentially portraying it as the dividing line between a good and bad customer experience. It suggests that "talking the talk" can, if anything, be more important than "walking the walk."

I would argue the opposite. A customer experience is defined by the palette of action the agent employs to optimize the interaction. When I interact with a customer service agent, my hope is that he does everything right and proves that I matter to the organization while working diligently to bring me the resolution I seek. If he does that, and thus proves my value through the strength of his actions, I’m not necessarily going to care about intricacies in his wording, because I’ll know that whatever he says is motivated by customer-centricity rather than apathy. I’ll, at that point, be able to justify my positive translation of "no problem" rather than Lapidus’ negative one.

And so I return to my original thesis—if slight errors in the word choice destroy the customer experience, then it was already destroyed. If Lapidus truly felt that the use of "no problem" was, in and of itself, revealed callous indifference on the part of the employee, then it was clear the employee’s actions were not enough to demonstrate customer-centricity.

That is the far bigger problem. The lack of customer-centricity in the actions represent the true bottleneck. Without resolving that situation and assuring agents are demonstrating an utter commitment to the customer, no amount of wordplay will be enough to rectify the damaged experience.

At the end of the day, customer experience is about doing the right things, not saying the right things. If we think about a great customer experience story (or a terrible customer experience story), we are far more likely to remember what happened than what specifically was said.

Word choice certainly factors into the overall perspective of how an organization values its customers, but if I am confident that an organization is doing all the right things to enhance my experience, it will not matter whether the agent ends the call with a quick goodbye or a touching, tear-inducing monologue.

In either case, there will be no problem.