Never use these five cringeworthy phrases when you ask for help

Was it something you said? Is that the reason a company is ignoring your otherwise reasonable request for assistance?

If you have to ask, the answer is probably “yes.”

But what did you say? I’ve been reading cases for what seems like decades now — I started my advocacy practice in 1998 — and I’ve noticed a few patterns. It’s the same words and phrases that, for a variety of reasons, suggest the case is a dud. A simple edit can turn that around, though.

“The stewardess was rude to me.”
This one keeps coming up in our cases, since we deal with so many travel problems. When the words “rude” and “stewardess” or “steward” appear in the same sentence, it’s a tip-off. Expectations are too high on passengers’ part, and invariably, they were the rude ones. Also, I can’t recall the last case where rude “stewardesses” were involved that the customer received what they wanted. By the way, they’re called flight attendants now. Welcome to the 21st century.

Instead, say this: “Your flight attendant didn’t meet your most basic customer service obligations.”

“I’ll never do business with you again.”
This one’s also a frequent offender. It’s understandable that you’d use it out of frustration, but as I’ve said many times before, it hurts your case. Why? Because who would do anything for you if you’ve already decided you’ll never do business with a company again? It’s an empty threat, too, because if the company offers a voucher or discount, you most certainly will do business with it again. So yes, I cringe when I see “I’ll never do business with you again,” because it just doesn’t convey the right sentiment.

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Instead, say this: “I’m disappointed with the level of customer service I received.”

“I’m going to tell all my friends on social media about your product.”
This isn’t something you threaten. It’s something you do. So when you say you’ll tell all of your friends online about the less-than-stellar customer service experience, it comes off as a real empty threat. Social media shame-campaigns are reactionary and happen quickly. Generally, they are not premeditated or even coordinated. When a representative sees a threat like, “Remember ‘United Breaks Guitars’? That’ll look like a puff piece when I’m done with you,” then they just roll their eyes. They can almost imagine someone with the default egg avatar calling out the Big Company on Twitter. Yawn.

Instead, go on social media and take down the company. They’ll respond when they’ve had enough.

“You’ll be hearing from my lawyer.”
Another empty, and cringeworthy, threat. If that were true, then they’d be holding a paper letter from your lawyer right now. This is a classic bluff — give me what I want or I’ll sue. And it backfires badly, always. Why? Because emails like that get sent to the legal department, where someone correctly assesses your odds of suing at zero. “I’ll sue” should never go into a complaint letter. Never, ever.

Instead, say this: “I would like to find a way of resolving this without the involvement of a third party.” That’s vague enough to not be perceived as a threat, but suggests that you would escalate this, if necessary.

“I demand a full refund! (Even though I used the product.)”
You see this one a lot when vacations go bad. People demand a do-over, even when most services have been provided. While asking for specific compensation is a good idea, asking for too much compensation isn’t. If you’ve used a product, you don’t ask for a full refund. It makes you look ignorant and guarantees the company will say “no,” which will only lead to more cringeworthy things being said.

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Instead, say this: “Please consider a partial refund or a voucher as recognition of the disappointing customer experience.”

Next time you run into trouble with a company, avoid these awkward phrases. It might increase the odds of a successful resolution, not to mention save you some embarrassment.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at

  • sirwired

    Bonus: Leave off any phrase appearing in the “Card Deck of Misery”, unless it’s actually directly relevant, as opposed to a play for sympathy. Examples include:
    “I / I’m…
    – on a fixed income (that one’s my favorite; most of us are on a fixed income, including the person reading your letter)
    – elderly
    – disabled
    – have an ill/disabled family member
    – have [illness]
    – a veteran
    – unemployed
    – mired in debt
    – pregnant
    – etc.

    Most memorable (from this site) was the letter-writer that wanted a break on her late cable bill because (among other reasons) she used to care for her now-deceased mother who happened to be a concentration-camp survivor.

  • Jeff W.

    The lawyer bluff is especially cringeworthy because most people using that phrase don’t have a lawyer or the lawyer they do have does not specialize in the type of law needed to bring this complaint to trial.

    (Yes, I have/know a lawyer. He helped me with all the paperwork to when I purchased my house. Not really the type of lawyer that can help me win this type of complaint. You know it, they know it.)

    Yet, the company you are writing the complaint most likely has lawyers. A bunch of them. On staff or under contract.

  • Kristiana Lee

    Another don’t–“but Company X did it for me! Why won’t you?”

  • AAGK

    Amazing list! Another one I overheard a dissatisfied customer yell while leaving a restaurant, “I will Yelp the [blank] out of you.”

  • AAGK

    Or worse, the person saying it is a lawyer but plans to do nothing “legal” about it anyway.

  • Rebecca

    I should add the golden rule of customer service, to replace the customer is always right. Every employee I ever had knew this rule: do not, under any circumstances, at any time, for any reason, apologize for the inconvenience. It’s like nails on a chalkboard when I hear that phrase.

    My pet peeve lately has been when a call center employee says “and have I provided you with excellent customer service today?”. I don’t begrudge the rep, because I know they’re required to say it. But what moron came up with that script? They need to do a focus group or something.

  • Rebecca

    No. The worst is the person that says I went to law school, but they never passed the bar. You know who they are. They never call themselves a lawyer, but they did indeed go to law school. I called a guy out on it once when he got belligerent with supervisor I worked with that couldn’t get him off the phone. I was the most popular person in the office for weeks.

  • David___1

    Instead of “I’ll never do business with you again” try “After this experience I wonder why I’d ever do business with you again”. It opens to door for the company to prove they believe you are valued as a customer.

  • Johng

    Also “Is there anything else I can help you with,” when they have not been able to help you at all Like you i don’t hold it against the person on the phone as they have no choice. But it so so annoying.

  • Bill___A

    How about using the line, “This has upset me enough that right now I would prefer to buy a ticket on United Airlines than deal with your company”?

  • Annie M

    Outstanding reading!

  • Bruce Burger

    Often a complaint involves the business not handling a difficult situation (like bad weather) badly. I find it helpful to acknowledge what aspects of the situation were beyond their control, and make it clear what actions WITHIN their control should have been different.

  • JewelEyed

    Let’s not forget single parent with children. That’s a favorite too.

  • JewelEyed

    I would probably prefer “Is there anything else you need assistance with?” It’s not implying that they have helped, but that despite the fact that they may not have been able to fix your first problem, they would like to try to fix any others you’re having.

  • Altosk

    Shaming on social media is powerful, if done correctly.

  • cjbs98

    Sometimes, “I’ll never do business with you again” is not an idle threat. Depends on the business. About 7 years ago we were redoing out kitchen, laundry etc. I needed all new appliances and went to a local, well known, 4 or 5 (local) chain (Company A). Without getting into the down and dirty, after an hour of the worst customer service ever, we left, went somewhere else, purchased everything we needed (and saved a few thousand as well). I wrote to the company after along the lines of, maybe purchasing 6 or 7 new appliances is not a lot to you, but………….and then went on to explain in detail exactly why we left without throwing their sales person under the bus (as angry as I was, I would never want someone losing their job because of me). I did however, say where we ended up and the amazing customer service we received there (Company B). The owner of the company got back to me within a day, was upset this had occurred and asked if there was anything he could do to bring us back. He also said he was closing all his stores for a day the following week and would be holding extensive customer training sessions using my letter (which he had copied and placed in each breakroom in each store) as a basis for what not to do. He also asked which salesman I had been dealing with. I thanked him for his response, said no, I was not throwing anyone under the bus and thank you but no thank you, I liked where I went and for the time being was all set.

    Fast forward a week and the person we did buy everything from called me laughing as the owner of the company above came into her store and tried to hire her!! She said no thank you, she was quite happy where she was.

    About two years ago I needed to replace one appliance – it was a lemon, the manufacturer had replaced it twice but same problem occurred (and that is a great story for another day), so I thought hey, I will go back to where they were retrained and I will give them a little business. I had the exact same salesperson, the exact same treatment (he was lazy, uninterested, hated being asked questions–and it was not us, I assure you), so off we went. The amazing lady I had purchased from has retired so I tried another local place, a stand alone, family owned and operated (Company C) and I will never go anywhere else again. They are amazing. So see, in some cases, there are choices and if company A above gave me a certificate for hundreds off, I would still not walk through their door again. Over the years I have run into more people who feel the same, all of whom go to company C (the last one I went to) and swear by them.

    Sorry this is so long, but I thought worth commenting about……

  • Pegtoo

    Time to let Owner of Company A know what a slug employee he has.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    Most real lawyers in my office get enough disagreements at work that they’re not really interested in legal analysis at home (or opining on fact patterns brought up by their neighbor or cocktail party guests).

    But I would say that passing the bar doesn’t mean much. I deal with many attorneys who have passed multiple bars, but can’t write plain English.

  • Mel65

    bahaha. Bonus points for making yelp a verb though!

  • joycexyz

    And I really love “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Clearly the problem is my feelings, not whatever the company did to cause those feelings.

  • DChamp56

    I guess many of these depends on the severity of your issue.
    To say “I’m disappointed you didn’t meet my basic customer satisfaction service levels” wouldn’t be right if you had been dragged, kicking and screaming off of a flight to make room for non-paying employees. Just saying.

  • LonnieC

    Yeah. And I’m a lawyer – I specialized in commercial law, including contract law – and even I haven’t ever threatened to sue.

    First of all, most cases are too small to be worth the time. Second, the liklihood of winning is near nil. Sadly, we all accept those terrible contracts of adhesion the airlines apply when we buy a ticket.

    Now, a class action attacking those very contracts might be interesting, although I expect that’s already been done….

  • LonnieC


  • LonnieC

    And I’m getting really tired of being asked to fill out a survey on “how we did”. If they did poorly I’ll let them know. And if they “did good”, well, that’s what they’re supposed to do. Stop harassing me.

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