Decoding service-speak: 5 employee insults you need to know

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By Christopher Elliott

Spend enough time around customer service agents and you understand that what they say and what they mean are often two very different things. That’s never more apparent than when they are talking directly to you.

Fortunately for these employees, they’ve developed a secret lexicon of words and phrases that can only be interpreted in one way by the general public, but that to them mean something quite specific and often insulting.

For example, let’s say you’ve just boarded a flight and you’re sending a message from your phone as the cabin doors close. Flight attendants are roaming the aisle to ensure all seatbelts are fastened and electronic devices are turned off.

Just as you hit “send” and start powering down your smartphone, you feel a hard tap on your shoulder and see a grimacing crewmember looming over you.

Customer service

“You need to turn off your phone all the way, hon,” she intones in a singsong voice.

Now, if you were to read a transcript of the conversation, it would seem as if the flight attendant was being perfectly polite. But you know better. You know what the employee meant by “hon,” and it wasn’t hon.

By the way, that’s not a hypothetical case. I’m writing this on a plane and it just happened to me. Message received! (Here’s what insiders really think about airline customer service.)

Here are a few other phrases to watch for.

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“For your convenience”

Whenever a company claims to have done anything for your “convenience,” look out. Did they add a tip to your bill for your convenience? Remove an essential service or amenity for your convenience? Are they adding a fee for your convenience? Odds are, they mean the exact opposite – it’s actually done for their convenience and, usually, their enrichment.

“Your call is very important to us”

This phrase, sometimes also “Your business is very important,” is often used when telling a customer to get lost. You’ll hear it just after the automated phone system cheerfully announces that you have a two-hour wait time to speak with a customer service agent. “Your call is very important,” the voice adds. “For faster service, please call back between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m.” No one ever tells you your business is important unless they’re inconveniencing you; usually after a dealership has refused to take back the lemon it sold you last week or an airline pockets your entire airfare after your plans change. It’s nonsense, of course.

“At this time”

Whenever a company uses “at this time,” it indicates you’re about to encounter corporate intransigence of the highest order. For example, yesterday I asked a well-known hotel chain to help me answer a reader who had been denied a room discount. A representative from the corporate office emailed me a few hours later to offer a terse explanation of its decision and then added, “We have no further comment at this time.” When a representative uses “at this time,” she really means, “If you don’t like it, you can stick it.” Got it?

“Have a nice day”

Did you really think they wanted you to have a nice day when they said that? Duh. If, in the course of a customer transaction — and this is especially true if it’s an unpleasant one — someone tells you to “have a nice day,” chances are they mean the reverse. It’s the ultimate “[expletive] you!” saying for customer service agents who are not allowed to use salty language when dealing with customers. But the true meaning is impossible to miss. Since I live in Orlando, we also have a theme park version: “Have a magical day!”

“We look forward to welcoming you back”

I see this phrase tacked onto the bottom of so many form letters addressing someone who was otherwise treated in a horrible way by a company, that I now understand what they actually mean: Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Good riddance!” Of course, they’re not allowed to say that. But when they look forward to welcoming you back, it gives them the satisfaction of knowing it’s what they meant. (Here’s our guide to resolving your consumer problem.)

Granted, it’s possible that when an employee says something has been done for your convenience, or that your business is important, they actually mean it. Context is everything. But I’ve heard these phrases frequently convey rage or insult toward a customer.

Best response to the customer service agent

What’s the best response? Reflection. When someone calls you “hon,” you can call them “hon” right back. Just make sure you get the inflection right, hon. If someone says they’ve added a gratuity for your “convenience,” you can always remove it from your bill for “their convenience.”

Have a nice day? No, you have a nice day.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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