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What not to tell a client (even if you're dying to)

Customer service is about asking questions and listening to what clients are saying, not telling them what to do, says Ken Zelazny, a business coach and franchise trainer in Cambridge, Ont.

Andy Dean/

When Ben Eldridge and his new wife, Angela Sellitto Eldridge, opened their wedding album in 2009, the photos were pretty much what they expected. Happy faces, loving embraces and all the makings of a day to remember.

Then they noticed the front cover. The inscribed wedding date was wrong.

Mr. Eldridge says the photography service offered to fix the error for a cool $1,000, which the Toronto-based couple declined to pay.

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"When we mentioned that this kind of mistake was covered in the contract, they replied, 'Oh, you got us when we were cheap,'" he says.

It seems everybody has a customer service horror story to tell, from the flight attendant who sighs, 'I'm too tired to ask you what you want in your coffee," to the bra fitting specialist who proclaims, "Well, you can buy it if you like, but I have to let you know it was made using sweatshop labour." (And yes, both stories are true.)

So what can small business owners and employees do to be sure they keep their feet firmly away from their mouths? In other words, what should you never say to a client you want to keep?

After all, courteous service is important to Canadians. According to the 2012 Global Customer Service Barometer, a research report from American Express, 31 per cent of Canadian respondents said they were most likely to switch brands because of rude or unresponsive customer service reps. (The French, however, take rudeness in stride, with just 13 per cent citing insolence as a deal-breaker.)

The key to customer civility comes down to being present, taking notice of what's going on and listening, says Ken Zelazny, a business coach and franchise trainer in Cambridge, Ont. For instance, when his limo service drives him to the airport, he says the driver will invariably ask him, "Going to the airport?" This after loading his suitcases into the car.

"I always tell my clients there's no such thing as a stupid question, but there is. All too often, we're caught up with the script in our heads," he says.

Sometimes the blunder is not so much what you say, but what you write. Just ask Aimee Elizabeth, the Las Vegas-based author of Poverty Sucks! How to Become a Self-Made Millionaire and onetime owner of a indoor plant service. The business sold, delivered and serviced live and silk plants for hotels, offices and wealthy clients.

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At one point she showed a new client – one she anticipated would be difficult – her service schedule, forgetting she had posted tips and notes about the client on the page.

"As my client begins reading the schedule, he looks at me with shock and incredulity, and says to me, 'You think I'm a total jerk and a giant pain in the ass?' Which was exactly what my notes said," Ms. Elizabeth says.

Fortunately – and incredibly – she was able to placate the client by saying she wrote that note to motivate her workers through fear. The client bought the story and went on to use the service for years.

Most verbal and communication blunders are less extreme, but can still hurt or even destroy a client relationship. Here are a few examples of what a client never wants to hear:

"Can I call you back? I'm busy with another client."

Sure, you want people to think you're in demand, but nobody wants to be reminded that they're a number. "It's like saying to a client, 'You're important… but you're not,'" Mr. Zelazny says. Instead, say, "I really want to talk to you. I'll call you as soon as I'm done with this call."

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"That's our policy."

Policy-schmolicy, says Hunter Phoenix, a life coach and speaker from Vancouver. There's nothing more frustrating than a company that hides behind its rules. "Especially if it is a small business, it's very likely the person you are talking to was instrumental in creating the policy!" she says. "If they made it, they can break it." If you have to stick to your guns, say, "I'd be happy to help you with that, but let's find a better solution."

"Here's my home number. Call me any time."

Worst. Move. Ever. Giving clients 24-7 access might feel like a good idea if you're hustling for business, but it can certainly backfire. Everybody needs time away from work and a needy or demanding client is a recipe for burnout. Not only should you be kind to your customers, but also be respectful to yourself, too.

"It's not my fault. It's yours."

Let's face it. Not all customers are easy to work with or even competent. Still, throwing mud rarely helps a situation and usually makes it worse. Stay professional and make your case. And if things get really bad? That's what lawyers are for.

Obviously nobody's perfect. There will probably come a time when you'll say something you wish you hadn't. So what should you do to rectify the situation after a slip-up? Say these seven little words: "What would you like me to do?"

"It's about asking the questions and listening to what clients are saying, not telling them what to do," Mr. Zelazny says. "In other words, telling isn't selling."

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