"No problem": The vuvuzela of customer service

Jim Blasingame

"No problem at all."

That's exactly what the young man on the phone at the bank said to me after I thanked him for not being able to answer my question.

He didn't say, "I'm sorry I wasn't able to be of more assistance," or "I'll be happy to take a message." Instead, he slouched into the verbal scourge of the 21st-century marketplace: when an employee serving a customer says, "No problem."

In addition to the sound being harmonically dissonant to a customer's ear, "No problem" is also cognitively dissonant to the Universe because of its misuse in the following two service scenarios, both of which are inappropriate and unprofessional:

1. While conducting a business transaction with a customer, any employee introduces the word "problem" into the conversation when, until that moment, there wasn't one!

Should customers be concerned that their presence at a $$$$, tablecloth restaurant creates some issue, concern or trouble? Has this waiter, whose tip alone could be as much as a week's groceries, been rudely inconvenienced in some way?  "No problem" spoils the most beautiful marketplace moment when both customer and business are happiest: consummating a successful business transaction.

2. In the remediation of a customer concern, like returning a defective product, inquiring about an incorrect bill, or the Vichyssoise is served piping hot, an employee says, incredibly, "No problem." Of course, by definition, this is technically inaccurate and professionally incompetent because - THERE REALLY IS A PROBLEM!

If you ask a friend to help you move on Saturday and they decline with a heartfelt apology and reasonable excuse, your "No worries," is appropriate.  But when you show up at a business with a fist full of hard-earned cash, do you feel relieved at being absolved and forgiven for some apparent behavioral breach or customer crime when an employee anoints you with, "No problem?"  How did being served transmogrify into what sounds like the customer should offer an apology?

"No problem" is fingernails across a chalkboard, or that stupid horn they blow at South African soccer games. So, how did the professionally sublime, "It's my pleasure," devolve into "No problem," the vuvuzela of customer service? One word: laziness. And it manifests as disregard at best and disrespect at worst.

There are 228,132 words in the English language (I counted). Armed with this at once handy and massive linguistic toolbox, if an employee can't pay attention to a customer's words well enough to form an appropriate response, that's laziness. But as surely as the deliverer of an inappropriate "No problem" should be indicted for not saying, "Please let me help you with this REAL problem of a broken product in an unopened box," or "Thank you for your business," the laziness larceny isn't all theirs.

"No problem" first offenders become recidivists because they have not been trained how to communicate as professionals, which begs our departure from the aural offense to follow the money. Once, I suggested to an offending waitress at a restaurant I frequent that she replace her "No problem" bad habit with "It's my pleasure," or "You're welcome." It was obvious she didn't realize how her words hit customers, and to her credit, promised to try my idea. A month later she reported back that since she stopped suggesting there was a problem when there wasn't, her tips had gone up.

Tips only defy gravity when customers are happy. And happy customers always find their way back to businesses that train employees to say "Thank you" instead of, well, you know.

In the Age of the Customer, everything we sell is a commodity that can be bought at a dozen other places around town and a thousand online. As a Main Street business - or bank - you have only one differentiator: the positive personal experience the customer attributes directly, specifically and uniquely to your business. Which won't happen if your employees blow a vuvuzela at customers for merely showing up.

Write this on a rock ... "No problem" is a big problem. Train your employees how to communicate for a positive and profitable customer experience. And then work on making eye contact.

Jim Blasingame is the author of The 3rd Ingredient, the Journey of Analog Ethics into the World of Digital Fear and Greed.

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