What I Learned Taking The No But Challenge

For the past two months I've tried to strike the word "but" from my vocabulary.

It's not easy. I'm not even sure it's a good idea to go 100 percent but-free. Maybe but-light would be better.

My quest stemmed from an interview with Evan Watson where he described how he used improv training to help customer service agents better serve customers. Watson explained one of the main tenants of improvisation is agreement.

The idea is you try to find agreement with the other person to keep the improv scene or the customer conversation going.

The word "but" feels like it stops agreement. It's used when you say one thing and then say something completely different. As in, "I'd like to help you, but I can't help you."

So I wondered what it would be like if I stopped using that word with clients and colleagues. The results have been revealing.


Background on the Challenge

There are times when the answer to a question really is "No." 

The natural appendage to "No" is "but" when we're trying to be helpful. As in, "Can you meet on Tuesday?" and you're booked on Tuesday so you might reply, "No, but I can meet on Wednesday. Does that work for you?"

While it seems helpful, there's also something negative about it. This gets amplified in service situations. As in, "Your app isn't working, can you help me fix it?" A reply of "No, but you can check our website" doesn't feel great.

It's somewhat similar to my own concept called trigger words. These words, when used at the wrong time, can trigger a customer's anger. Jeremy Watkin refers to them as "stop words," which I think is the same thing.

Shep Hyken recently wrote a blog post describing how subtle changes to the way we phrase things can influence how customers perceive them. 

All this made it seem like an interesting challenge.

Please don't get me wrong. I don't think the word "but" is really horrible. It's not like saying "ain't" which is universally known to cause your mother to faint. My goal here was simply to elevate my game.


It's Hard to Get Rid of But

I quickly learned the word is instinctive, and instincts are hard to change.

People would ask me something and I'd instantly infuse my response with "but." Someone asking, "Can you help me with this project" would generate an instinctive "No, but I have some resources I can share."

It's agreeable, yet disagreeable at the same time.

It's hard to get a take-back in a verbal conversation, though I realized you can take advantage of written correspondence. 

For example, I got an email from a prospective client who wanted to have me speak at her company's all-staff meeting in December. My schedule is completely full in December so my first instinct was to write, "No, but please think of me for next year's meeting!"

Stop. Delete. Re-write. I realized she doesn't care about next year's meeting because she's trying to plan this year's meeting.

What I ended up writing was, "I'm sorry to say my calendar is completely booked through December, including the dates of your all-staff meeting. Is there another way I might help you?"

I think I'm on to something because she sent me a very nice note in response.


Say Yes 'Til It Hurts

The word "but" is often triggered by a "no," so one way to avoid but is to say "yes" until it hurts.

I got a call last week from the leader of an alumni group I belong to. She asked me to deliver a keynote presentation at a student conference that was just three weeks away.

My first instinct was to politely decline. I'm very busy with multiple deadlines and extensive travel, so squeezing this in would be difficult.

Yet I realized this was an opportunity to give back to an organization I care about and meet some of its newest members. I ultimately avoided saying "No, but" to this request by saying "Yes."

Obviously, this challenge isn't good for my time management. 

The bigger picture is it causes me to pause and re-think whether there really is a realistic way I can say "Yes." Sometimes, the answer still is "No," though not as often as I might initially think.


Apply Mental Flexibility

Avoiding but can require a lot of mental flexibility.

A colleague recently emailed to invite me to a special event he knew I'd be interested in attending. I'm going to be out of town that day, so I was tempted to write, "I can't make it, but I can share this with a few others I know will enjoy it."

There's nothing really wrong with that response. I'm just trying to do better, so I wrote, "I’ll be out of town that day, which is too bad because it sounds like a fun event. I’ll share this with the few colleagues I know in the area in case they’d be interested."

This whole thing is a work in progress. It takes extra effort to eliminate these buts. I think it's worth it.

The idea is to be more agreeable. For example, my wife and I had dinner with friends last night. One of my friends asked, "Are you still traveling a lot?"

I replied, "Yes, but I will be slowing down soon, so we can get together more often!"

A Mind-blowingly Epic Post About Words

My friend Michelle and I recently had a conversation about the use of adjectives. It went something like this:

“I could really go for some ice cream right now.”

“That would be mind-blowing.”

“Let’s keep an eye out for a place. I'm craving some chocolate chip."

“Yeah, chocolate chip ice cream would be epic.”

“Ok, but what happens if one of us wins the lottery? How would we describe that?! We’ve already wasted mind-blowing and epic on chocolate chip ice cream.”

I’m pretty sure I ripped this idea from a comedian, probably Louis C.K., but the idea rings true. A lot of words get tossed around without much thought.

In truth, chocolate chip ice cream would have been really nice at that moment. But mind-blowing?

Here’s the definition of mind-blowing according to dictionary.com:

  1. Overwhelming; astounding
  2. Producing a hallucinogenic effect

I like chocolate chip ice cream but it doesn't rise to the level of overwhelming or astounding. And, I try really hard not to visit the kinds of places that would serve ice cream with hallucinogenic side effects.

That ice-cream was mind-blowing.

That ice-cream was mind-blowing.

Marketers, journalists, and bloggers use these types of adjectives like they’re going out of style. Try Googling "Mind-blowing ________" where you fill in the blank with your topic of interest. Then prepare to be moderately informed. Your mind will definitely not be blown.

It’s not really their fault. Many of us (myself included) use these types of hype-laden words in everyday conversation without really giving them much thought.

This is a problem with meaningless words in customer service too.

Consider these common customer service questions that have lost virtually all meaning from rampant overuse:

  • How are you today?
  • Did you find everything alright?
  • Is there anything else I can help you with?

The cashiers at my local grocery often ask “Did you find everything alright?” It must be part of the script, because they ask it nearly every time. I sometimes say “No.”

That leads to awkwardness. (Clearly, I’m supposed to say “Yes.”) There's stunned silence or a small grunt of acknowledgement before the cashier returns to cashiering.

Once in awhile, an adventurous cashier asks for more information. “What weren’t you able to find?”

“You were out of frozen chicken breasts.”

More awkwardness. “Oh. Sorry.”

Why do we bother asking these questions? Like the over-hyped adjectives mind-blowing and epic, we’ve stopped thinking about them. We just say the words.

There are other customer service pet peeves when it comes to words. Many customer service managers tell me they cringe when they hear one of their employees say “No problem” to a customer.

The feeling is it sends the wrong message, as if serving the customer might have been a problem, just not this time. 

The problem with “No problem” is that it’s used instinctively. A client of mine once shared the “No problem” challenge with me and then unconsciously blurted “No problem!” in response to an unrelated issue just two minutes later. 


So, what can be done?

My suggestion is to think more clearly about what we’re trying to accomplish with our words. 

  1. Save adjectives like mind-blowing and epic for times when they really apply.
  2. Never ask questions we don’t want the answer to.
  3. Be thoughtful about the words we use with customers.

It's not easy, but it would be amazing if we could do better.