The Power of Every Word: Why I Stopped Using “Actually” and “But” In My Customer Service Emails

ActuallyOne of my favorite “happiness hacks” has been to attempt to remove the word “actually” from my vocabulary.

This has been remarkably hard to do, and I still have to struggle not to let it past my lips or fingers. At Buffer, we have found that there is a small band of words that takes away from your message, and “actually” is their leader.

It almost doesn’t matter how good the news is; if it comes after “actually,” I feel like I was somehow wrong about something.

Consider these two sentences:

Actually, you can do this under “Settings.”

Sure thing, you can do this under “Settings!” :)

Certainly, there are other differences between those two sentences besides the word “actually.” We try to aim for the second one at Buffer for several reasons.

Bottom line is, if customers take time out of their lives to ask us a question, thus teaching us about areas of confusion in our app, we’d love if they never have any occasion to feel stupid, or wrong, or corrected.

It’s amazing how much brighter my writing (and speaking) gets when I go through and lose the “actuallies.”

But

While I’m at it, I try to get rid of the “buts” too.

Sentence 1: I really appreciate you writing in, but unfortunately we don’t have this feature available.

Sentence 2: I really appreciate you writing in! Unfortunately, we don’t have this feature available.

Feel different? When I substitute my “buts” for exclamation points, I feel so much happier with my message.

You can see more examples in the tone guide we recently published describing how we write for our customers in emails, on Twitter, with product messages, at our blog, and everywhere else we might interact. The main principle behind our tone is this:

To the customer, our language and tone say: I am grateful for you. I have great respect for you. I am listening. I am open. I am here.

Working on getting rid of words like “actually” and “but” help us to get closer to living that principle every day.

Any other words you strike from your customer service (or general life) vocabulary? I’d love to hear them in the comments or at @carokopp! :)

This post originally appeared on my personal website, carokopp.com. Feel free to browse the archives for even more insight into customer service and support.

Image credit: craig.letourneau.photography

  • http://belovednewo.blogspot.com/ Laura

    I have always appreciated the communication techniques from everyone at Buffer who I’ve spoken to on this blog and on twitter. It feels like talking to a friend instead of a company, which it awesome.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Wow, that’s simply amazing to hear, Laura! I will make sure all our amazing Heroes, who do a great job on Twitter, get to read your kind comment. :)

      • Ahmed Medien

        Sometimes, I feel though, that you’re “faking” it. Sorry about that word. I love everything that you do, but it happened once that two people sent me the same email response. “Actually,” it was almost identical.

        It’s okay. I can take a no or a but sometimes.

        • Courtney Seiter

          Great point, Ahmed! We’ve definitely noticed that working so closely together (though physically far apart!) we tend to take on one another’s mannerisms and expressions. Probably something worth keeping an eye on for eagle-eyed customers like yourself! :)

  • Jerry Dugan

    Gads! I use “actually” in my writing all the time. Thanks for this tip. I not only heard a difference in your comparisons but actually felt a difference as a reader.

    • Dan Messina

      “but actually” Well done…

      • http://www.thewebsitemanagers.com/ Thea Woods

        Word @dan_messina:disqus! I see what you did there @jerrydugan:disqus, and I like it! ;)

  • Dan Messina

    Good points, I’ve been trying to avoid using “but” after reading Carnegie’s “How To Win Friends…” “Actually” is another great one to think about avoiding/re-wording.

    Language links thoughts to actions…

    • http://www.confusinglysimple.com David French

      It also links to instinctive reactions.

      • Dan Messina

        Yeah, that’s likely closer linked, as there’s certainly a gap between thoughts and actions.

        I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a physiological response to the cue “but,” based on instinctive reactions/intuition (or System 1 ;) )

        • http://www.confusinglysimple.com David French

          I expect we’ll be seeing a Buffer Blog post in the future, with detailed analysis on reaction to words.

    • http://nickyjameson.com/ Nicky Jameson

      I use “However” as an alternative to “But.” I find it more positive and gentler.

  • Robert Boyd

    Subtlety and emphasis are really hard to express in written communications to people you don’t know well. If you believe that every support interaction is an opportunity to build the relationship with your customer, this makes a HUGE difference. Great post, thank you!

  • Nneka McGuire

    You make such good points here, Carolyn. Thanks for all that you and Buffer do to make customers feel appreciated. It’s working. :)

    Here are some words I strive to avoid with clients and others: “In fact,” “Instead,” “Should,” and “Don’t” (unless I’m saying, “Don’t worry!”)

    In place of these words, I use terms like, “Another option,” “You might,” “Perhaps,” “This usually works for me, and will hopefully help you!” and “Would you mind trying this?”

    • http://www.confusinglysimple.com David French

      Oh, now this comment I’m going to swipe, and squirrel away for future thought.

      Great points!

      • Nneka McGuire

        Thanks so much, David!

      • http://www.thewebsitemanagers.com/ Thea Woods

        Ditto David. These are great too Nneka! :)

        • Nneka McGuire

          Thanks a ton, Thea!

  • http://www.confusinglysimple.com David French

    I was trained to consider “but” as a virtual kick in the groin, after getting patted on the back for something. The visual was excessive overkill, but the point was driven home. I still have a visceral reaction every time I catch myself typing the word in a sentence.

    I had never connected the word “Actually” to the emotion evoked. To me, that one is more like being told that you’re too much of a rube to figure it out on your own. Or, you’re overlooking the obvious because… (fill in the blank with a detrimental adjective).

    • andrekibbe

      It’s the context of “actually” in a reply that determines the connotation, not the word itself. Consider:

      Customer: Can I get a 10% discount?
      CS: Actually, I can give you a 20% discount, since [reason].

      Versus:

      Customer: Can I get a 10% discount?
      CS: Actually, 5% is the maximum discount we’re authorized to give.

      In the first instance, “Actually” amplifies the goodwill that’s being expressed. “Actually” is only a problem when used as a contradiction, as in the second example.

      So I don’t fully agree that “actually” should be banned; it’s just that in most cases, the word is used to couch a contradiction, just like “honestly”.

  • http://www.confusinglysimple.com David French

    While on the subject of vocabulary, what are your thoughts regarding the use of contractions in blog posts?

    Personally, I feel that it depends on the level of blog. Their use in a personal, family style blog would probably be acceptable, BUT a business blog might shy away from the practice?

    • andrekibbe

      I’d paraphrase Camus: Those who write informally have readers. Those who write formally have commentators.

      Buffer Open is putatively a business blog, but its audience isn’t a bunch of MBAs. The personal tone of this blog is what makes it attractive, and the goal is to attract as many new readers as possible.

  • http://reme.io Sorin Pantiş

    Another word I avoid is “unfortunately”. Fortune has nothing to do with how an app works. When I am being told “unfortunately” I feel like it’s just my bad luck that I encountered the problem or that the feature X does not exist yet. Let’s not make it fortune-related for the users! :)

    • http://www.thewebsitemanagers.com/ Thea Woods

      Ooo…that’s a good one Sorin! I guess I better add that to the list! :)

    • Shawn Carter

      Whoa… that’s one I’ve missed. And you’re totally correct.

    • Maria Scarpello

      +1 this is one I’ve focused on since day 1 at WooThemes, trying not to say.

  • James Lee

    Great point, Carolyn! It made me think of the classic “and over but” approach to exchanging and discussing differing ideas. A brief article here:

    http://www.whiteoakcounseling.com/resources/using-and-instead

  • Eric Lerner

    On top of not using “but” I’m trying to replace it with “and.” It is mentioned in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People AND still works today! The response has been great.

  • Guest

    It’s really amazing how subtle changes to customer responses can change things. I consider the wording of a response a “window framing” of the idea the customer will interpret when they read it.

    One thing I try to do with customers, is to suggest actions in the sense of “we” as opposed to directly telling them. It gives a sense of the customer (rightly) controlling their fate. Following with a “Is that okay?” adds to it.

    Example:
    An item ships to a customer, they are clearly upset:

    Old way: We’ll issue a refund credit or ship another item to you.

    New way: How about we ship you another copy of the item for delivery on Friday. If that isn’t of help, how about we issue a full refund? Which of these choices would be the most useful?”

    Doing these sorts of things, although subtle, reminds the customer they aren’t locked into the negative experience they might feel like they are locked into. Giving them transparent choices gives them power. Win=Win.

  • Daniel Gdowski

    It’s really amazing how subtle changes to customer responses can
    alter things. I consider the wording of a response a “window framing”
    of the idea the customer will silently interpret when they read it. One thing I try to do with customers, is to suggest actions in the sense of “we” as opposed to directly telling them. It gives a sense of hand-holding and the customer (rightly) controlling their fate. Following with an “Is that okay?” adds to it.

    Example: An broken item ships to a customer, and they are clearly upset:

    Old way: We’ll issue a refund credit or ship another item to you.

    New way: How about we ship you another copy of the item for delivery on
    Friday. If that isn’t of help, how about we issue a full refund? Which
    of these choices would be the most useful?”

    Doing these sorts of things, although subtle, reminds the customer they aren’t locked into the negative experience they might feel like they are locked into. Giving them transparent choices gives them power. Win=Win.

  • Daniel Gdowski

    It’s really amazing how subtle changes to customer responses can
    alter things. I consider the wording of a response a “window framing”
    of the idea the customer will silently interpret when they read it. One
    thing I try to do with customers, is to suggest actions in the sense of
    “we” as opposed to directly telling them. It gives a sense of hand-holding and the customer (rightly) controlling their fate. Following with an “Is that okay?” adds to it.

    Example: A broken item ships to a customer, and they are clearly upset:

    Old way: I’m sorry, I’ll issue a refund credit or ship another item to you.

    New way: How about we ship you another copy of the item for delivery on
    Friday. If that isn’t of help, how about we issue a full refund? Which of these choices would be the most useful?”

    Doing these sorts of things, although subtle, reminds the customer they
    aren’t locked into the negative experience they might feel like they
    are. Giving them transparent choices gives them power. And because it’s internet based, that extra reassurance bridge the gap of not having a person in front of you telling you it’s ok.
    Win=Win.

  • http://www.thewebsitemanagers.com/ Thea Woods

    These suggestions are really great, Carolyn! :) It’s amazing how minor adjustments in our writing/speech can make a major impact in reducing unnecessary misunderstandings.

  • Shawn Carter

    One that I’ve noticed I say way too much when I’m speaking is “literally”. I’m not sure where it started, or even when. It became a catch all kind of word that I used for emphasis but takes away from other descriptive words I could be using. And I rarely used it correctly. It’s an ongoing struggle. Lol

  • carolhannah

    I love all the suggestions here. As a Mental Health trainer and Ward Manager I took the word “but” out of my communication with staff and students when giving feedback i.e.

    ‘this is a great piece of work “but” next time maybe you could add………’ to

    ‘this is a great piece of work “and” next time maybe you could add………..’

    “But” sounds like criticism in the above instance, saying “and” sounds more encouraging.

    Also say “would” you instead of “could” you, “will” you instead of “can” you.

    Note the difference i.e.

    “Can you……?” sounds almost whiney as opposed to “will you……?” The same as “could you?” and “would you?”

    Subtle changes and they make such a huge difference.

  • Heidi Kenyon

    When I’m speaking as an expert, rather than just offering a suggestion, I try to avoid starting out with “I think” or “I feel.” When it’s clear that whatever I’m saying is, in fact, my opinion, “I think” or “I feel” serve only to weaken the statement.

  • andrekibbe

    Use can use “actually” to your advantage, since the word is an intensifier that cuts both ways. It makes bad news worse and good news better.

    An example I’m stealing from my earlier comment here:

    Customer: Can I get a 10% discount?
    CS: Actually, I can give you a 20% discount, since [reason]!

    Versus:

    Customer: Can I get a 5% discount?
    CS: Actually, 5% is the maximum discount we’re authorized to give.

    I understand why “actually” gets a bad rap. Most of the time it’s used to precede bad news. Properly used, it can build rapport as easily as it can short circuit it.

    You can also “happiness hack” the word “but” by using it to precede good news that follows bad news. In other words, you can say something like “I can’t X, but I can do Y and Z for you!” When this response pattern becomes habitual, your brain automatically starts thinking of options that you can offer instead of defaulting to flat variations of “I can’t”.

    • Esther Mozo

      I like this!

  • http://hubskills.com/ Partha Bhattacharya

    Great tips Carolyn. Coming across being humble is so difficult in writing where every word speaks for the unseen writer.

  • Paul

    Think there was an article on the net, could be Lifehacker, that talked about removing the word “Just”…as in, “All you have to do is just head the management meeting” because it cheapens the act or whatever it is that is “just” a thing. Good blog post though!

    • http://www.BluewireMedia.com.au/blog Adam Franklin

      Hi Paul, I agree that ‘just’ is one of worst 4 letter words to utter. We often use it to describe what we do and cheapen ourselves in the process … Eg. I’m just an accountant or I’m just a club player or it’s just a small business. Thanks!

  • alistaircunningham

    On the flipside, for curmudgeonly speakers of British English, phrases like “Sure thing”, “Reaching out” and the seeming need to be positive in emails grate. We might only account for 1% of the world’s population, but please spare a thought for me when you tell me “you appreciate me writing in” (or, as in a recent Buffer email, “so awesome to hear from you”), my unintentional reaction is to ponder how dull your other correspondences must be for my mundane and tedious prose to be of interest.

    But maybe that’s just me…

    • Esther Mozo

      Yes, too much cheeriness could sound insincere. On the other hand, it might just be a cultural difference. Courtesy, however, is always appreciated.

  • Agnes Dadura

    ah, I do use these words… now, when you have pointed it out, they’re not awesome words to use. Thanks!

  • http://natashawalks.com Natasha Walker

    Awesome tips! I loved this when I read it on your blog a few days ago, and it’s even better with all the awesome suggestions here in the comments! I will definitely be filing these away for future use. :)

  • Jevon Millan

    I sent in an e-mail on this one. I like to avoid the word “no” – without being obsequious or making unusual promises. My explanation too long for comments.

  • julietchen

    Thank you for sharing such great points, Carolyn! One thing I find helpful as well is to pick a chilled, upbeat music playlist while talking/writing to customers. I would often feel as if I’m chatting with friends in a café, and this makes my language much more relaxed and personal :)

  • Baybreeze

    Awesome article and great pointers! I also use “unfortunately” instead of “but”, however, it never crossed my mind how the word “actually” could be perceived. I’ll have to remember this and work on it.

    I never use the phrases “Please hold” or “Can you please hold?”

    When I call a company about an issue and a rep tells me to “please hold”, it’s often very curt, blunt, and rushed, and makes me feel brushed off. Therefore, when I have customers call me at work, and if there’s no other solution but to put them on hold, I always explain the situation and then ask them if they would mind holding. (“Would you mind if I briefly put you on hold so that I can better assist you?”) I also offer the option of me calling them back. So, in essence, I don’t “tell” them to hold or “request” them to hold – I ask them if they would mind holding.

  • Andrea Glass

    Awesome article and great pointers! I also use “unfortunately” instead of “but”, however, it never crossed my mind how the word “actually” could be perceived. I’ll have to remember this and work on it.

    I never use the phrases “Please hold” or “Can you please hold?”

    When I call a company about an issue and a rep tells me to “please hold”, it’s often very curt, blunt, and rushed, and makes me feel brushed off. Therefore, when I have customers call me at work, and if there’s no other solution but to put them on hold, I always explain the situation and then ask them if they would mind holding. (“Would you mind if I briefly put you on hold so that I can better assist you?”) I also offer the option of me calling them back. So, in essence, I don’t “tell” them to hold or “request” them to hold – I ask them if they would mind holding.

  • Steve Katz

    Perhaps you’d also consider proper English

    Sentence 1: I really appreciate you writing in, …..

    Could better be stated as “I really appreciate your having written ….”

    • http://nickyjameson.com/ Nicky Jameson

      While we’re about it, eliminate “really.”

      • Steve Katz

        Really?

        • http://nickyjameson.com/ Nicky Jameson

          Yes, really. As in “it’s really this” or it’s really that, or I really… appreciate, I really want , I really would like, I really must, I really hope… etc.” While it is used to add emphasis in writing (it’s hard not to) it’s another “filler” word.

          • Steve Katz

            Maybe we should use Spackle as a filler word?

  • http://www.frogstalk.com Francoise

    These are great ideas! You are right Carolyn. Subtle changes can make a big difference. It is a habit to use more words than we need to and it is quite normal. We do so for example because we want to make the message especially pleasant to the reader, because we want to be sure that the recipient understands all the details or because we are making a big effort to be understood.

    This is linked to behavioral patterns we will show continuously and learned as kids … there is nothing wrong about it! It’s just like we are. Training to get rid of some of it is an excellent way to become more aware of them and learn how to enhance our communication with others. .

    For the theory behind this, it has been described in further details by Taibi Kahler: in the above description I used the “please you”, “be perfect” and “try hard” drivers as examples. Hope this is interesting for you :) .

  • http://www.regiondo.de/ opnde

    Hi Carolyn, great blog post. But one thing … just joking ;-)

    I had a presentation some weeks ago and after the session, a guy came to me and offered me some advice. “Don’t use the word “actually” in any presentation. It just weakens your message. Be more certain about what you are saying. And in all my years, really nobody ever complained that I should habe used thenword “actually” more often”. Right he is ;-)

    I would also put the word “should” on the list. Especially in the combination with “we” in a meeting.

  • tlmaurer

    My first round edit of all my written content is to scan for “that”…. a totally unnecessary word in most cases. We try to write as we speak, and somehow these ‘words of habit’ seem to be painfully obvious when you read them. Nice article.

  • ameena

    Wow! I am so happy to read your post about the power of our words! Thanks.
    To me “but” is a verbal eraser we all know–consciously and unconsciously understand. My fun way is to tell my clients “I invented and (&) so they are always adding and not taking away.
    With your example:
    “I really appreciate you writing in, but unfortunately we don’t have this feature available.” could shift to “I really appreciate you writing in and unfortunately we don’t have this feature available.”
    It is fun to listen to them self correct from “but” to “and” as they talk. They train their brains quickly.
    As for me, I am practicing eliminating “that” throughout my sentences..

  • http://thepersuasionrevolution.com/ thepersuasionrevolution.com

    Oh wow this is such a short sweet piece…you guys at Buffer are really raising the bar for good, actionable content.
    My “bad” words are “that said” (translation: the nice things I just said don’t mean anything and all that matters is the real nasty that follows) and “as much as” (as in, as much as I’d like to…meaning I don’t really want to) and “I hear you” (which basically implies I don’t hear you and you are just a blabbering old fool)

    That said, I urge you to keep doing the great work Carolyn ;)

  • Ivan Šestak

    Pisati i govoriti istinu po cijelom svijetu , nemože nitko pogaziti i spriječiti istina uvijek na kraju pobjeđuje. Vijerujte Istiniti SVIJEDOK UKAZANJA MAJKE BOŽJE I NJEZINE MILOSTI. to su nezamislive milosti i snage koje su za čovijekov um nedostižne i nepojmljive. Pomažite starijim, nemočnim, bolesnim, gladnim i svim ostalim potrebitim i nemočnim ljudima jer ssvaki ljudski život jednako je vrijedan – kao i od bogataša prepunog novca kojemu je oč novca okrenula um , kao i siromaha koji poštuje i više cijeni život sa svojom vijerom i skromnošču. AMEN,

  • Abbey Hambright

    This is great! I’ve always found “actually” to feel really condescending when written– it’s a good one to avoid for sure.

    On using ‘but,’ I once heard a speaker say that “‘But’ is an abbreviation for ‘bullshit.’” As in, by saying a whole bunch of nice things and then following them with “but,” you’ve basically negated everything that came before in the sentence and everything after the but is what you really think. This was in reference to communicating about emotions (“I hear that your feelings were hurt when I did XYZ, but I’m more important so I’m going to keep doing it.”) but applies here, too. No customer wants to feel like they’re being pandered to with a perfunctory thanks, and swapping the period for the but, like in the example, definitely helps!

  • Patrick Lloyd

    good stuff!

  • ares0926

    Thank You for this Carolyn! I am in customer service and I spend all day communication by phone and e-mail. Keeping any hint of negativity out of my messages is a strong desire for me. I will try to limit ‘actually’ and ‘but’ starting today.

  • intouchcrm

    Great advice! We will certainly try and avoid those words.

  • SarahMeadeBurkholder

    I also hate it when people use the word “simply.” This has such a “you’re a dumb%$ for not knowing this simple solution” connotation!

  • Mike Alessi

    These are some good points. You may want to reconsider words like “hopefully” and “unfortunately” as well.

  • billdaviswords

    Excellent points, Carolyn. One sentence is confusing: don’t you mean “substitute with,” not “substitute for”?

  • Massimo Fiorentino

    Actually, you have some very good blog posts here at Buffer. Keep it up! :-D

  • Kathy Gower

    “Actually” these are words which are picked up as ulterior messages by your reader who will interpret your message as superior :) I have learned to change “but” to “and” which changes the potential negative message to objective. “I like this blog alot but I wish it had been longer.” “I like this blog alot and I wish it had been longer”.
    I have removed “try” from my vocabulary making it “I will do” rather than “I’ll try” as we can all try and get nowhere.
    Shoulds, Oughts, Musts are all Parental messages and best avoided.
    Thanks for being human Buffer peeps, I like that :)

  • Brent

    Hi Carolyn,

    I’ve also been working on removing “but” from my language. It’s been years since I became aware of the implication that it negates everything written or spoken before it, STILL – it is difficult to remove completely as it’s so omnipresent. I’m much better than I was before, and I’m going to keep working at it for the rest of my life. It definitely improves the tone and the messages I’m trying to convey.

    “Actually” is a good one, too. Now I need to add it to my repertoire of words that need to be subtracted from my lexicon. Yikes!

  • http://www.opportunityknits.com OpportunityKnits

    My almost-teenager is working on eliminating the word “like”, as in “he was like so rude”.

  • http://daveshrein.com Dave Shrein

    Carolyn, I love this. What I really love is that you’re looking in non-conventional places to improve the lives of others. Usually we stop at the low-hanging fruit and once we’ve picked all those improvements, we stop.

    You’ve identified tipping point style of changes that very few will ever discover.

  • http://www.lithium.com Brian Kling

    One of my peeves, but occurs more in conversations/meetings, is the word “obviously” – this just sounds condescending even though I know some chronic users don’t mean it that way, it’s just a habit.

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