Going off Script

Going off Script

As I write this article, the Writers Guild of America has been on strike for three months. They are in dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers over (among other things) payments, staffing levels, and the role of generative AI tools in their field of work.

The guild holds some collective power, because good writing is critical to the quality of most film and television, as proven by some of the plot lines resulting from the 2007 writers strike. The right words from a script writer, carefully chosen and well delivered, can create an emotional response in the audience. For essentially the same reason, script writers are also employed in sales and service (though to considerably less cultural acclaim). 

In contact centers and larger companies around the world, customer-facing staff members are given strict scripts to follow during phone calls, chats, and emails. By closely controlling their words, companies hope to create a consistent voice, quality level, and adherence to policy in a way that can be delivered by people without much expertise or experience.

There is some validity to this approach. Great script writers can come up with turns of phrase and narrative structures that reliably improve sales or calm down upset customers. There is often plenty of comparative data to demonstrate their effectiveness.

Systemizing a customer-facing service in this way — to simplify the work, reduce individual decision-making, and improve onboarding speed — is a classic move from the business-scaling playbook. It is how McDonald’s manages to staff their stores mostly with inexperienced teenagers and not have them constantly burning down. 

But online service is a two-way conversation. The script on the page is useful only up to the moment that the real human on the other end does something that the script writer never anticipated. Perhaps it’s in the form of a problem which is similar-but-not-exactly-like the one the script describes. Or it’s a unique combination of issues that completely changes the required solution. 

At that moment the script reader must first notice that the customer is no longer on the same page and then must decide what to do about it. If this reader was hired specifically because they were inexperienced and low-cost and were not given much training, then that’s going to be very hard. Their only path forward is to barrel onward through the script, no matter what the customer says, which is a horror movie scene we have probably all been trapped in at some point.

Customer service scripts can never be treated as sacrosanct in the way some directors insist on filming their work. There will always be variation and adaptation required. Yet almost every customer service department will have some form of pre-written answers, knowledge base articles, and guidelines on how to approach certain situations. 

Hollywood has an equivalent here, too. Not every filmed work is scripted down to the letter. Consider the famously improvised works of director Christopher Guest of “This is Spinal Tap” fame. There is no real script for his films, but that doesn’t mean the actors are just pushed out in front of the cameras and expected to invent the plot. 

There is a thorough outline and breakdown of scenes prepared before any filming — “it’s not a free for all. It’s very rigid in its preparation.” There is structure and guidance but no exact script to follow. 

To make this improvisational approach work requires actors who can be trusted and who trust each other, with enough skills and training to keep things going even when mistakes happen or it gets a bit chaotic.

Doesn’t that sound a lot like working in a really great customer service environment?

Of course for some sensitive or legal situations you might still need a closely written script, and saved replies and knowledge base articles can help create consistency and improve speed. Just make sure you are leaving room for improvisation.

That’s the model to follow if you want to deliver consistently high-quality service. Staff your team with skilled people, support them with training, and give them direction and some wide boundaries to work within. Then let them decide how exactly to help the customer in front of them.

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Mathew Patterson
Mathew Patterson

After running a support team for years, Mat joined the marketing team at Help Scout, where we make excellent customer service achievable for companies of all sizes. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.