Sunday, June 02, 2024

Stop making service reps stick to the script

When working customer service, is it sometimes best to go off script?

Back at the turn of the century, I wrote a column about a strike that had recently been settled between a large telecommunications company and its workers. At the heart of the strike, I wrote, “were the high stress levels experienced by service representatives.”

While the company’s stated core values were listed as “integrity, respect, imagination, passion and service,” there seemed to be a disconnect between those values and some of the ways it treated its employees. One example I offered was that management requested customer service representatives stick with this scripted question: “Did I provide you with outstanding service today?”

I noted that such a question posed to an irate customer after they presumably had worked their way through a phone tree, hold music and finally dozens of minutes of speaking to a representative could set the customer off again. No matter how patient the customer service representative might have been, if a customer had called about poor service, a simple thank you might have been a better way to end the call.

Having spent my share of minutes and hours on the phone with customer service representatives to try to resolve issues, I can understand how challenging it can be for both customer and representative to wrestle solutions to thorny problems. But almost 25 years after I wrote about the high stress levels at that telecommunications company, these often contentious discussions continue to be exacerbated by poorly scripted attempts to placate a disgruntled customer. Is it right to instruct representatives to say something that is likely to do more harm than good?

The latest example I experienced involved being transferred from one customer representative to another to see if an issue could be resolved. Each time the representative ended our discussion by asking, “Can I do anything else for you today?” Given that the representative was transferring me to someone else, that made it pretty clear they were unable to do anything for me to begin with. Because of the word-for-word duplication of that question, I am confident it was the scripted way they were instructed to end a call.

When dealing with such calls, I try hard to make clear to the representative that my frustration is with their employer not with them. But forcing such questions in the guise of helpfulness when the representative knows they haven’t been able to be helpful puts them in an awful spot by reminding the customer – in these cases, me – just how much the representative didn’t do.

 While it doesn’t address the problem I or another customer might call about, having the decency to allow representatives to stray from script if they believe such wording is likely to make the situation worse seems the right thing for employers to do. The right thing for me and other customers is to stay focused on trying to get whatever issue they called about resolved and try as hard as possible not to unload on the representative who might not be capable of fixing what needs fixing. Even better, of course, would be if companies were better at empowering employees to actually try to fix something rather than to make them switch to another person in another department who then may have to switch you to another then another. And it’s never good to blame the customer for a problem before making sure the company hasn’t screwed up.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

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Follow him on Twitter @jseglin


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