Scripting interactions is the quickest way to make sure everyone on a team gets on the same page about how to deal with common issues.
That’s why large tech companies like Microsoft use scripts to standardize the support they offer customers, and non-profit organizations use scripts to train fundraising phone bankers.
You might feel at a loss when your computer automatically updates and the update causes basic programs to stop working, but you can be sure that the manufacturer’s customer experience department will already have mapped out a path for you. They’ll know and have planned for the questions you’re likely to ask, where you’ll go on the company’s website to find answers, what will happen when you call for help, the questions support team members or technicians will ask you, and who in the support chain they’ll refer you to next.
Veterans’ charities, the paralympics, your local city symphony—they all caught onto the value of scripting years ago. So when cold callers ring your home or cell phone, they sound roughly the same. They’re reading from the same interaction script, they’re required to make a certain number of calls per hour, and their rote approach means you’re unlikely to hang up satisfied or feeling heard.
Interaction scripts define minimum standards of behavior for the people using them. They simplify reality into this-then-that prompts, sequences, and branching decisions: team members take specific actions in a specific order so that specific outcomes can result.
The scripts’ goal could be a satisfied client or a contributing donor. Goals could be quantitative too: how many customers or donors engage the team, which actions they take after their interaction, and how quickly the team serves the public each time.
Ultimately, scripts keep staff on topic and on target, and limit how much those team members can innovate. That’s great when questions are closed-ended. It even gives people a clear, comforting sense of what the rules are and what they can expect: Press 2 for billing and 3 for support. Say No at least three times, ask the cold-caller’s supervisor to remove you from the call list, and we will leave you in peace.
But these patterns fail miserably when problems are complex or the task requires creativity. Team members who haven’t been trained, authorized, or empowered to really resolve customer concerns flounder when confronted with real, unscripted life, especially that slice of life that takes longer than seven minutes to wrap up.
Scripted interactions may be clean, discrete, and easy to measure. But they undermine the creative, problem-solving process precisely because creating solutions means questioning the assumptions that standards and policies are based on. Creativity means perceiving more than what’s already known and accounted for. It requires us to push beyond the script.
I recently spent half an hour trapped in one of the most labyrinthine support networks I’ve ever seen. The staff shuttled me between three departments, all represented on the line by people who didn’t understand me or my issue and struggled when I asked questions that their scripts hadn’t anticipated.
As it happened, forcing me to use NATO’s phonetic alphabet didn’t help either. (YANKEE ECHO SIERRA, ROMEO ECHO ALPHA LIMA LIMA YANKEE: The phonetic alphabet.)
I wound up on hold, resolving the problem myself through research, trial, error, and improvement, all as I resolved never to call or recommend that company’s support line ever again.
In some circumstances, like when problems are well-bounded and time is short, it makes sense to limit staff’s responses in the same way you might restrict your morning routine or clothing choices to free up your willpower or mental energy.
But in overly scripted systems, that freed-up mental energy has nowhere to go. Hyper-scripted team members don’t have room to listen deeply or innovate; they can’t easily discover as life presents because they’re expected to just follow the process as given.
Yet when situations have a lot of moving parts and are uncertain, complex, or even wicked, you’ll want staff members in the right frame of mind to perceive, analyze, and design creative solutions.
You’ll want to give them space to listen, to innovate, to surprise themselves as well as each other and learn new possibilities in the process.
Because following the script won’t get them all the way there.