Four customer service stories:
1)Telephoning a restaurant. Call a restaurant on the phone–to make a reservation, check on the specials, whatever..and you will likely hear something like this:
Thank you for calling Snarfer’s Steakhouse, where the elite meet to eat. My name is Tiffany…how may I be of assistance to you today?
You can bet Tiffany didn’t come up with this string of words herself. She has been told exactly what to say, has to say it 100 times a day, and is so tired of saying it that she often slurs the words together:
Often, the message is so slurred and incomprehensible that I’m not sure I’ve called the right number, resulting in a question:
Is this Snarfer’s Steakhouse?
This kind of thing originated with chain restaurants but can now often be found at many independent restaurants as well.
2)At the grocery store. At my local grocery store, the cashiers have recently been directed to always thank the customers by name. Since there is no possible way that they can know or remember the names of all customers, they look for the name on the register receipt so that they can say:
Thank you, Mr Foster
Thank you, Ms Schleswig-Holstein
The employees at this store were mostly helpful and friendly all along. There was no need to require them to engage in this stilted dialogue.
3)Calling a bank. I needed to speak to the local branch manager of a large national bank. The person who answered the phone said something like:
Thank you for calling LotsOfBranchesBank…my name is Joan…how may I exceed your expectations today?
When I got the branch manager, I suggested that no one really wanted to hear blather about “exceeding your expectations today.” She agreed, but said she was given no discretion as to how the phones should be answered.
The branch manager had no discretion over answering her own phones.
(A little extra research indicated that this was not an overall corporate policy, but rather had been edicted by some regional executive or regional staff person.)
4)Calling another financial institution. This is not a call center, but a fairly small specialized office. If you call the main number for this office, you will hear something like:
Thank you for calling TooBigToFail Financial; how may I direct your call?
After you tell the receptionist who you want to talk with, she will say:
It is my pleasure to connect you.
She must say those precise words, dozens of times a day.
Talking with one of the brokers revealed that the “it is my pleasure” phraseology had been lifted from that used by a certain well-known hotel chain…apparently, some executive had heard about it, probably at a conference on “improving customer service,” and decided it would have the same magical impact in financial services that it supposedly had in resort hotels.
Question: What do any of these scripts contribute to the business objective of increasing revenue and improving profitability? The answer, in my not-at-all-humble opinion, is nothing at all.
Why do we now have such an epidemic of scripted and stilted phraseology?
Whether or not they know it, the executive who design and require these scripted recitations are practicing Taylorism–and not a very sophisticated or intelligent form of Taylorism, at that.
Frederick Winslow Taylor is generally credited as the creator of scientific management. Taylor, to greatly oversimplify, taught two basic principles:
1)Work should be analyze scientifically, with experiments as to what procedures work best, rather than carried out according to the we’ve-always-done-it-this-way rule.
2)There must be a complete separation between thinking and doing. The industrial engineers who decide on “the one best way” to do a job should be entirely separate from the workers who actually do it.
In a fully-Taylorized machine shop, for instance, a milling machine operator will be given a card showing him not only what cuts he is expected to make in a workpiece, but what “speeds and feeds” should be set on the machine for best cutting performance. In a Taylorized assembly shop, the specific sequence of movements to be made by an assembler are specified–with your left hand pick up this part, with your right hand do something else. (Henry Ford’s assembly line is obviously Taylorist in concept, but, at least according to Ford, was developed independently of Taylor’s work.)
Although Taylor has been much demonized in recent years, Taylorism is by no means all bad. The first principle–the scientific analysis of work–is surely a good thing, at least if you believe that economic prosperity is a good thing. (And Taylor viewed his method as a way of improving productivity and allowing high wages to be paid, thereby avoiding the creation and perpetuation of an impoverished proletariat in the U.S.) Where Taylor went wrong is in his second principle–the rigid separation of thinking from doing.
In our present era, enlightened practitioners of manufacturing have backed away from rigid Taylorism and have recognized that the ordinary worker can often contribute usefully to thinking about how a task is best performed, as well as actually doing it. As service industries have become Taylorized, though, they seem very often to have adopted the unreconstructed, 1911 version of “scientific management.” (I suspect even Taylor would have been shocked by the customer service approach being used by many companies today. He certainly knew that you can’t machine aluminum in precisely the same way you machine steel, but the use of the same phrases in all customer situations, regardless of the context, is analogous to exactly that.)
It’s interesting to note that the organizations that are most rigidly Taylorized on the talking level are often not effectively Taylorized at all on the doing level. The restaurant in which the words spoken by hostess and waitperson are most formulaic is also likely to be the restaurant which has never realized that people ordering hamburgers are also likely to want ketchup/mustard, thereby requiring hundreds of unnecessary trips across the floor for their servers. The call center that precisely scripts every word spoken by their agents has very often failed to do an intelligent job of thinking out the flow of problem resolution for orders, health care claims, or whatever useful work they are supposed to be doing. It sometimes feels as if we are becoming a society of people whose most important activity is reciting precanned verbal formulae to each other, in an almost ritualistic way. Indeed, I’m reminded of a passage by General Andre Beaufre, describing his experience as a young Captain on the French General Staff between the wars:
I saw very quickly that our seniors were primarily concerned with forms of drafting. Every memorandum had to be perfect, written in a concise, impersonal style, and conforming to a logical and faultless plan–but so abstract that it had to be read several times before one could find out what it was about…”I have the honour to inform you that I have decided…I envisage…I attach some importance to the fact that…” Actually no one decided more than the barest minimum, and what indeed was decided was pretty trivial.
And we all know how well that worked out!
The spread of verbal mush may not be have gone as far in business as it has in educational institutions or in “non-profits”…but it is still pretty bad. It harms employee morale, it hurts customer relations, it interferes with the doing of important work, and it leads to unclear thought. And in business, unclear thought sooner or later costs money. Moreover, verbal mush is harmful to the public image of business. We conservatives and libertarians like to criticize “government bureaucracy,” but the truth is, the average citizen encounters corporate bureaucracies more frequently than government ones–he may visit the DMV once a year, but he deals with phone companies and health insurance companies and credit card companies much more often. And, increasingly, the private bureaucracies seem determined to give the public ones a run for their money in the who-can-be-more-bureaucratic sweepstakes.
(Andre Beaufre quote from his important and well-written book, 1940: The Fall of France)