A call to one of the UK's '118' telephone directory services recently reinforced my view that the pursuit of helpfulness by scripted response fails miserably.
Having booked to stay in a hotel near Chester (we were going to the races for the day), we arrived in the area without our booking details. Knowing we wouldn't actually get to the hotel until much later, we thought we should call the hotel to 'check in' over the phone.
Not having the number, I called a 118 operator to ask for it.
"The St. David's Hotel, near Chester, please". I said.
"Sorry, that number is ex directory," I was told!
"But it's a hotel!" I replied, "and part of a prestigious national chain too!"
Silence… and then, the automatic pilot kicked in. Unfortunately, it headed straight towards the mountain side…. "I've got the St. David's Hotel in Harlech if that's any good..."
This is what I call 'scriptease' – it's easier to revert to the script than to use your initiative.
Maybe the operator was told to do this. Maybe he wasn't encouraged or trained to think. Perhaps he just couldn't be bothered.
But whatever the reason, scriptease is all too common, and it's not limited to directory enquiries.
A delegate at a seminar I was speaking at recently revealed his experience of calling a train company and asking for a one-way ticket to London. He was told it was £52 – much more expensive than the £28 return journey he'd read about.
He asked the operator about this, who confirmed that this offer was indeed available.
"I'll have a return for £28 then please". Amazingly, the response was; "Because I know you're only making a single journey, I cannot sell you this ticket!".
He put the phone down, called back, and asked for a return – wouldn't any of us? But, why the hell should we?
Any business that encourages (or even allows) their people to perform scriptease demonstrates little concern for their customers.
But why does it happen? Surely organisations recognise that having satisfied customers is one of the prime goals for any successful organisation?
There appear to be a number of reasons. Helping ensure consistency is a regular response to the criticism. Well, my reply is "what's so good about consistency?" Sure, I want a quality response, but I want passion, I want personality, I want engagement.
Customers more and more are looking for experiences. In fact, I personally like inconsistency. Give me someone who listens to me, thinks about what I've said, and responds accordingly, any day.
Another cause is the growing obsession with measuring performance. But in practice, this only leads to prioritising the wrong things - the number of calls answered (more please), time to answer a call (quicker please), length of time on the phone (shorter please) - rather than pursuing the fundamental principle of customer satisfaction.
It doesn't have to be like this. UK telephone bank, First Direct, recognised as a role model in customer service, does not have scripts, nor do they measure call times.
"Unlike most call centres, at First Direct call handling times are for budgeting and resourcing purposes only. We do measure wrap time and time spent facing the customer," said David Mead, former Customer Service Director with First Direct, speaking at The European Conference on Customer Management.
"But, I just love our people talking to our customers as much as they want to talk."
What a refreshing change – It works. I know. I'm a customer. The solution does not lie in answering the phone in three rings either - One business I worked with seemed to think that this was the answer to everything. Everyone was encouraged to vigorously pursue the challenge of answering in three rings. It became the clarion call of the MD – until it was pointed out to him that all this was achieving was poor service, but quicker!
And it's not just call centres. Shops and restaurants are also rife with automatons who appear to be there just to fill the floor space.
I know I shouldn't, but I sometimes just can't resist throwing people off guard. If I'm asked "Can I help you?" in an uninterested way, I reply quickly "With what?" Nobody expects that one! It completely throws them!
In many organisations, however, it's not the individuals' fault. The culture and systems reinforce scriptease.
A friend once worked part time in the local branch of a major retailer. When she arrived on her first day, the manageress informed her she had to wear a name badge at all times. Unfortunately, there wasn't one with Julie on it, so she was told to wear one with Rachel on for the first three weeks! A truly wonderful example of the manageress performing scriptease. The rules were clearly more important than the person.
The best businesses truly empower their people to use their initiative, their brains, and their personalities. They do it through clear guidelines, training, encouragement and rewards.
A recent flight on budget airline EasyJet highlighted the 'delight' of someone prepared to go 'off script'. A flamboyant air steward had developed his own version of all the usual announcements you hear on a plane. For example, he informed us that it was a non-smoking flight, and 'the only fags allowed were amongst the crew'.
Not politically correct, I know, but it brought smiles throughout the cabin.
"Thank you for flying with us today," he said just before disembarking. "We hope you've enjoyed it. If you have please tell your friends about us, if you haven't, thank you once again for flying Ryanair!"
His personality truly shone through from take off to landing. He was rewarded with a thunderous round of applause and a group of passengers starting their holidays with huge smiles on their faces.
The message is clear. In a world of sameness and scriptease, daring to be different is surely the way forward.
Encouraging your team to be that difference by providing an individual, personal, engaging, and memorable experience is the way to get ahead. Have a nice day, now!
1. Spot It Happening!
Get someone to ring up your own business or visit it to make an enquiry. How good are your people at dealing with enquiries? Ask them to feedback on their experiences. Establish ongoing feedback systems that allow customers to tell you when it's happening – reward them for spotting it!
2. Throw Out The Rule Book!
In your business exists a book. It's a book of rules, regulations and procedures that people quote from verbatim and use daily. You'll never find it! It's invisible, but somehow it lives, breathes and influences behaviours in your business.
Some of the rules are good, many are limiting. Your challenge is to discover its negative contents, and throw them out. Examples include "We can't…", "We must…"' and "I'm not allowed…"
Ask your people about it – many will quote it word for word.
3. Champion Your Customer Champions!
Who creates the best reaction from your customers in your business? Work out what they do, how they do it, what they say and how they say it! Replicate it! Get others to learn from them. Encourage (and reward) them to share their experience.
What's the reward for being great with customers in your business? (In too many, it means you get to deal with more of them, i.e. lots more work!).
4. Empower Your People
It's a buzzword, but true empowerment is about giving people the confidence, skills and permission to think, anticipate and actually do things.
'Confidence' is about support, encouragement and leadership; 'skills' means training, development and learning; 'permission' is about setting and communicating clear guidelines for all.
"I have only empowered my people to say 'Yes' to a customer. If they want to say 'No' they have to talk to a manager and clear it with them first" - Jan Carlzon, author of Moments of Truth, on his time as CEO at Scandinavian Airline Systems.
5. Hire For Attitude!
Recruit frontline people who can demonstrate their listening and conversation skills. Assess their ability to build rapport, think on their feet, identify problems, be spontaneous and generate ideas.
Do your recruitment processes find these aptitudes? If not, change them!
6. Ban Scripts
Simple. Let's move on.
7. Generate Alternatives
Get your team together and encourage them to come up with 'conversation generators', ideas for dealing with specific scenarios, problems, and enquiries. 'Role play', work out what works, replace what doesn't. Train people, encourage them to experiment, set challenges, have fun!
8. Role Model
Sometimes we need a 'spark' to help us. Sometimes we need some inspiration. Other times, we just need someone to learn from. Who sets the standards that wow you?
Don't restrict yourself to your industry (you might all be poor!). Get your people to call, visit and talk to them. What do they do well that impresses you? What can you learn? No, don't simply copy them… work out what you can borrow, amend or improve. Encourage your team to do the same. Why not ask your customers who they think you can learn from?
9. Measure Impacts
Monitor and measure levels of customer satisfaction, loyalty, repeat business, conversion rates, sales, not just length of calls, number of calls, or number of rings. Remember it's about quality and quantity. What gets, measured, gets managed.
Let your people know what's important. If they understand its about customer engagement, satisfaction and service, they can adjust their behaviours accordingly.
10. Get Your Personality Across
How do you want people to feel about your business? What lasting impression do you want to make? What is your competitive advantage? Answer these questions and then answer this one… Does the way we interact with our customers totally reinforce this? If it doesn't, then do something about it today.