Home > Contact Center, Customer Experience, Customer Service > There is a Big Difference Between Can’t and Won’t

There is a Big Difference Between Can’t and Won’t

A series of recent experiences on the customer side shed light on what I believe is a growing problem, possibly made worse by the public nature of communications – or possibly just poor grammar.

Cannot or Can’t is an expression of inability or incapacity – “I can’t take the garbage out”

Will not, or Won’t is also deliberate choice not to act – “I won’t take the garbage out”

For those of you with kids, those phrases are really quite different if they are used in response to “hey, would you please take out the garbage”. My reaction would be (has been?) very different in each case. Yes, I realize that some kids will use improper grammar and use one, and actually mean the other, so please look beyond that point.

When someone in customer service says “I cannot help you”, I believe that what they often mean is that they won’t help you.  However, if those words are used, while they might be honest, they might incite a much stronger reaction. Think offering a hotel voucher due to a delayed flight, or a refund for a poor experience or some other scenario. Read between the lines of ‘ I could help, but I am choosing not to help, so I won’t’ – yeah, probably not going to fly.

The unfortunate use of “Can’t” is when a subordinate is acting as a face for a more senior person or larger organization. Is this an act of proper deflection, a way to defuse the situation? “My boss says I can’t” Which is a proxy for, my boss can, but won’t and I will get in trouble if I let you talk to him (this exact scenario happened to me last week).

This may simply be a game of semantics, but it is a bit more complicated when the social web becomes involved. I cannot think of many more examples, or maybe I simply won’t try 🙂



  1. July 19, 2013 at 7:56 am

    Another. perhaps inverse, area where this comes into play, in a B2B sense, is when a business is asking a software maker to do something.

    A common way that a request comes through is: “Can you make the fibriwidget connect to the fantabulator too so the whole thing rolls up just so?”

    When confronted with this a coder has trouble because most often they absolutely _can_ do the request–the software language allows for it and it isn’t against the laws of physics. However, it might not be in the scope (either budgetary or temporal).

    So the coder is stuck: the question is “can” so the honest answer is “Yes.” But at the same time, the actual answer is “No, not within the scope parameters of this project.”

    But as you note, strong reactions can occur or additional hassle explaining just how/why the request is possible but outside the scope. So the coder might choose to absorb the pain of doing something out-of-scope instead of dealing with the pain of emotionally upset clients and/or meetings/paperwork/scope-change-documentation.

    This is how both clients and vendors contribute to scope creep and blow up software projects. However, if the coder can handle the emotional aspect of explaining the out-of-scopeness the end result is often a more meaningful relationship with their client–the transition from vendor to partner.

    I suspect there is a direct analog in this to customer service.

    • Mitch Lieberman
      July 19, 2013 at 9:53 am

      Thanks Gahlord, nice comment, one that hits a bit too close to home for me on many occasions. I have been in this situation, as I am sure you have as well. The use of “can you” is an intentional use of the capability definition, which is then used a implicit willingness to do it when the answer is given.

      When push back is attempted, there is no right answer (or seemingly right answer) either you feel incapable, or are put in an awkward spot.

      • July 19, 2013 at 9:59 am

        I think every software developer has encountered this situation.

        Sometimes this is used consciously be the business seeking software development. Sometimes it isn’t. It’s up to the developer to quickly identify which of these it is.

        If it’s conscious then the project must be driven to completion as quickly as possible and/or client discarded. If it’s unconscious then the developer can deepen the relationship by doing the more meaningful work.

        Again, I suspect there is a direct analog in customer service. Because that’s what this really is.

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