How to Lose a Customer with a Single Word

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

I once had a gig-job delivering pizzas (who doesn’t nowadays?) I’m not going to name the franchise, but I would say I enjoyed working for them – the values of quality and service matched who I am. 

Yet, there was a word we were supposed to use whenever we made a delivery, a word that was blatantly manipulative. That word was “only.” Pull up to the customer’s residence, bring the order to the door, knock, introduce yourself, summarize the order for quality control, and then punctuate the summary with “Your total comes to only,” followed by the amount. 

In an era when everyone says “saved”, the use of the word replaced what had become cliche (even though “save” is still strangely effective with many people). This was precisely the rationale given in the training material: the driver was subconsciously suggesting a lower than expected cost for higher than expected quality. 

Yet, stress-testing this word revealed unintended consequences. 

The customer in our example was a married mother with three children. Until recently, life was going well: both were working professionals with good incomes. Unfortunately, her husband lost his job, and was now working gig-jobs, with offset hours and not enough income. I knew this because she told me. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

That night, everything was chaos. She had a hard day at work, her husband had to work longer than intended, dinner was not prepared, her son got in trouble at school, etc. In short, it was the kind of chaotic day which drives the pizza business, and our stressed-out mother was experiencing all of the critical factors for another sale. Out of a habit built by successful marketing, she picked up her smartphone and ordered a pizza.

Cha-ching, right? Not exactly. 

What likely happened between her husband losing his job and now was a conversation about budget and finances. In these conversations, everything is up for reconsideration, including whether or not to order pizza. The conversation probably included the agreement that pizza is now a luxury. 

In a consumer market saturated with marketing and psychological exploits, the average consumer has become cynical regarding psychological manipulation, with a heightened awareness for when it is happening.

All well and good, until reality and associated stress steps in, and said mother is at wit’s end. Dollars to doughnuts pizza, there’s an emotion she’s feeling as soon as she places her order.


She rationalizes spending the money through all the factors identified above, assisted by the relief she is soon going to feel when her three grumpy children are satiated. No matter how she rationalizes her spending, the guilt is going to stick with her until she confesses to her husband that, yes, she broke their agreement and ordered pizza, even though they really can’t afford it. 

It is into this scenario that our friendly pizza-delivery guy walks in (me). After summarizing the remedy for her stressed-out day, I punctuated the order with the statement I was trained to say. “Your order comes to only..,” followed by the amount. The backlash was intense. 

“Only? Only?! THAT WAS EVERYTHING WE HAD UNTIL PAYDAY!!” She launched into a heated rant, including everything I described above, “only” occasionally interrupted by my apologies. But she wasn’t done; not by a long shot. 

“I knew I shouldn’t have ordered. I hope HE doesn’t get upset with me. No, he IS going to be mad! What could I do!? Let HIM deal with these kids; see how he likes it!” I waited patiently for her to get it all off her chest. I didn’t have a choice: payment was not going to come until she was finished. 

After she cooled down, the problem with the word “only” reared its ugly head. “Next time, I’m going to order from (insert competitor). AT LEAST I’LL HAVE A FEW DOLLARS LEFT FOR GAS!” She then shoved the money into my hand.


It was “only” a lost customer.

The point of this little story? In a consumer market saturated with marketing and psychological exploits, the average consumer has become cynical regarding psychological manipulation, with a heightened awareness for when it is happening. When a business programs their employees to say certain words, instead of naturally speaking in the context of a conversation, suspicions are aroused. 

In this example, the word “only” may be true, especially if weighed against the quality of the product and exemplary service. However, change one little variable (lack of finances), and this word becomes false because priorities have changed. 

For our stressed-out mom, it was no longer about quality and service; it was about money. She didn’t notice at first because she was acting on autopilot, ordering from her favorite pizza place like she always does. 

But saying the word “only” brought this awareness to the forefront. The delivery (no pun intended) didn’t change; the target did. 

Are there any universally-applied buzzwords in your organization which are having a detrimental impact on your bottom line?

Be careful with your delivery (pun intended). 

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