Communication Arts

The Language Of Customer Service

I hear you talking, but…

by Bruce Turkel

Mr. Turkel is CEO of Turkel Brands, a full-service, multicultural brand management firm located in Miami, Florida. He blogs regularly on marketing, PR & advertising issues and trends. Visit Reprinted with permission.

First a customer service confession: I forgot to pay a bill. Got no good excuse, just didn’t see it when I sat down to do my monthlies and it slipped my mind. Don’t judge, don’t hate, let’s just move on…

I didn’t recognize the number on my cellphone but I answered it anyway – hey, you never know. By the third word out of the customer service rep’s mouth I knew she had no idea who I was because she pronounced my last name “TUR-kle” instead of “Tur-KELL,” the way anyone who knows me says it.

“Hello, Bruce Turkel?” (Pronounced TUR-kle).


“This is Samantha Smith, customer service representative at XYZ Bank” (beautiful southern accent, by the way).


“Your account didn’t post.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Your account didn’t post.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Your account didn’t post.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“YOUR ACCOUNT DIDN’T POST.” (nearly yelling now).

“I heard you, Ms. Smith, I just don’t understand what you’re saying.”

“It means your account at XYZ Bank. Did. Not. Post.”

Customer Service Language

“I’m really sorry but I don’t know what post means. I know about blog posts, I know about light posts, I know about post times and I know about Post Cereals. I even know about post mortems. But I don’t know what it means when an account doesn’t post.”

English might be their mother tongue... so they understand the words but not the cultural references or the clues

“Oh. It means we didn’t post a payment to your account.” “You didn’t post a… Oh, you mean my payment’s late? Oops, I probably forgot to pay it. Wait, I’ll look… (a few keyboard clicks later) You’re right. I didn’t pay my bill. That was stupid of me. Why didn’t you just say so? I’ll take care of it immediately.” “Thank you sir. Is there anything else XYZ Bank customer service can do for you today?” I bit my tongue. “No thanks. Appreciate the customer service reminder. I’ll take care of it the minute I hang up.”

And I did. Have you ever been in a tense medical situation and spoken to a doctor who communicated in medical jargon you didn’t understand? Asymetric thoraxal reflux, perhaps, or cardiotropic defribulation? Have you ever met with your accountant to discuss taxes and been flummoxed by negative amortization schedules and accelerated deduction contra accounts or other industry terms that made no sense?

Talking In Slang

Have you ever listened to people talk in slang or use inside jokes you couldn’t follow? Have you ever been with people who were speaking a language you didn’t understand even though you were supposed to be part of the conversation?

It would make sense that customer service people who already have the difficult enough task of dealing with angry clients or explaining obtuse software or reminding people they didn’t pay their bills on time would make everyone’s lives easier by speaking in simple terms that anyone could follow.

If you train customer service reps try this illustrative experiment. Have them do an English language crossword puzzle from a country foreign to them. Even simple puzzles are almost impossible to complete because while English might be their mother tongue, not growing up in Canada or England or New Zealand or India or wherever means they can understand the words but not the cultural references or the clues.

It’s no different than a customer who can understand the language but not the inside jargon the customer service rep uses. Communicating in clear, unambiguous language is a simple way to make the transaction better for the customer, the customer service rep, and the company itself. And that’s a win-win-win outcome any way you say it.