Relax the Call Center Script

I recently read a good Small Business Trends article (Encourage Customer Loyalty with Your Call Center) that discussed an issue I’ve previously mentioned in the context of Shake Shack: it is okay for call center agents to leave the script behind when dealing with customers.

Scripting Customer Satisfaction
I’ve never made a secret of my dislike for call center scripts. I find them to be confining, and – when not constantly revised – often out of touch with the actual issues and concerns that customers raise during calls.  The best customer experiences are those in which there is a genuine dialogue geared towards resolving the reason for the call. In my experience, companies are much better off providing quality training and coaching, and allowing the agent a degree of freedom to help the customer.

With that said, many call centers – including inbound call centers – have a pre-scripted process for communicating with customers. When customers call with complaints, when they contact a company to discuss technical, billing or other account issues, when they want to learn more about product or service upgrades (or downgrades) – call center front line agents rely on scripts to initiate the conversation and arrive at a customer-oriented resolution.

One challenge for agents, however, is understanding when it’s acceptable to leave the script behind. As the article at Small Business Trends mentioned:

“The best way to ensure call center employees adopt a policy of problem solving and relationship building is to encourage them to relax the scripting they are provided. When they can think on their feet and communicate beyond the script they connect more effectively with customers.”

Customer Service Starts With the Customer
The key to successfully going beyond the script is knowledgeable front line agents with strong communication skills – and even stronger listening skills. No front line agent – regardless of how effective they are – can ‘read the customer’ without listening, understanding and empathizing with the reason for the customer’s call.

Having said this, I expect somewhere there’s an exasperated manager or supervisor throwing his or her hands in the air. “Why do we bother developing and refining a script if the agent is going to toss it out the window and go rogue?”

I have some good news and bad news for those annoyed call center managers.

Bad news first: yes, your call center agents may need to go off-script to solve the customer issue. It is virtually impossible to script out all the possible permutations of customer problems – or emotions.  In fact, to form a relationship or bond with the caller (the importance of which the article rightly points out), agents should adapt to not only what customer has to say, but also the ways in which they are conveying it.

A laid-back, good-humored “oh well, these kinds of things happen, it’s no problem” caller can be engaged differently from an angry, humorless “the sky is falling, you’ve completely ruined my world forever” type of caller. In both cases, agents may need to stray from the script to form the bond – the relationship – needed to create a positive customer experience.

As Maria Lebed wrote in her post 10 Barriers to Outstanding Customer Service:

“Customers desire authenticity and dislike overly scripted service. Many companies, unfortunately, deviate into scripted communication with their clients. Partly, it happens because it is easier for companies like this. It also happens because companies don’t trust the discretion of their employees that they can sort out the client’s problem. So they give them canned responses to send to customers.”

Now for the good news: regardless of the customer’s emotional state or degree of problem, it’s often possible to successfully conclude the call with a satisfied customer who feels an affinity for your company.

Off-Script Doesn’t Mean a “Free-For-All”
Most companies don’t want call center agents to give away a Prius and 12 years of free service because an install failed to occur within the 12:00-4:00pm timeframe. So how do you convey to agents that it is acceptable to use the script as a fluid framework for a dialogue rather than a speech to be read?

It boils down (as it often does) to the fundamentals:

  1. Establishing hiring practices and criteria that identify strong listening and communication skills
  2. Properly training agents on call techniques
  3. Monitoring and coaching to ensure successful outcomes

If you use them, how flexible are your company’s front line call center agent scripts?