Customer Service and the Words, “I Can’t”

Due to a mechanical problem on a United Airlines flight departing from Orlando last Sunday, I was informed, along with the rest of the passengers, that we would be delayed five hours (!?!). Because I would miss my connecting flight I went to United's lounge to make other arrangements. I'll spare you the details, but the agent was unhelpful and quite arrogant. She kept saying, "I can't" to everything I was politely asking her to do. All I got was, "I can't."

Concerned I would be a no-show for the speech I was to give the next morning I did what I always do in a panic situation. I called my wife Debbie and within about ten minutes the situation was resolved. Whew!

I had about an hour to kill and decided to hang out there in the lounge. As I headed out for my flight an hour later, the same agent I'd been dealing with walked up to me and said, "Here are your boarding passes for your new flight. I was able to take care of it." I let her know everything was already taken care of, and she walked away in a huff.

It's clear that the agent's initial "I can't" really meant "I won't." I know this because Debbie easily solved my problem and the agent eventually did too. My panic and frustration could've been avoided if the agent had even substituted "I can't" with "I'll try."

In today's day and age there is very little that organizations can't do, and most customers know that. We know that when someone says they can't they really mean they won't. And even if an employee isn't empowered to handle a customer's problem, he or she can say, "While I'm not able to do what you're asking, let me see if I can get someone who can." At least the customer would know the employee is making an attempt. But saying "I can't" is more often then not simply untrue. You can, but you won't.

So, the next time you are tempted to say "I can't" to a customer, please stop and ask yourself; "Is it really that I can't do it, or is it that I won't at least see what I can do?" Your customers will sure appreciate the difference.