Mindless Verbal Taylorism

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)

23 thoughts on “Mindless Verbal Taylorism”

  1. Some of these stock phrases are quite funny, if you take them literally. When I am asked whether I found “everything” I was looking for, I sometimes smile and say that I never find “everything” I am looking for. (The cashier usually admits that they never find everything they are looking for, either.)

  2. The whole idea of asking the “did you find everything?” question at the checkout is kind of strange. What happens if you say “no?” Do they hold up the whole line where the cashier goes and hunts for it?

  3. Nitpick: Is the name “Tayor” or “Taylor”?

    Nitpicks aside, a good and thoughtful piece. I suspect that alongside Taylorism, there is a general impression that Something Must Be Done To Improve The Business…so they start with Business Image, and require certain amounts of Flair.

    Excuse me, not flair, but Friendly Greetings. (Been watching too many movies.)

    Somehow, upper management misunderstands the Part for the Whole, and misses that other Part known as Process. So they are happy with the new Flair…er, Friendly Greetings.

  4. David: Do they hold up the whole line where the cashier goes and hunts for it?

    in Trader Joe’s, they do, sort of. Not the cashier, but a sales assistant. They have guys walking up and down the line, asking people if they forgot some item, and volunteering to fetch it. Very useful, I always find it.

  5. I wonder if anyone has actually studied whether such stilted and scripted greetings actually improve people’s perception of the company. Having worked telephone tech support and seen many different ways of handling it I learned that a preprogrammed greeting means that the person talking probably doesn’t have the training or authority to help me. If they did, the company would trust them enough to answer the phone with a script.

    I also find it insulting that the company thinks such an inane greeting will improve my estimation of the company. Worse, every time I here such a greeting I am instantly reminded that I am not dealing with small human scale establishment like a neighborhood restaurant but rather a large, impersonal, incompetent corporate bureaucracy. I don’t need to be reminded of that before I order my pancakes.

  6. Stilted scripts weren’t created in a vacuum, and the opposite of a script isn’t usually a meaningful, friendly human interaction. Do I like the scripts? No. Do I prefer what I get in the absence of a script? Very, very rarely. In both cases, the problem is the same–failed execution of a customer engagement strategy (or no strategy at all, which is even sadder).

  7. David: true. But then their cashiers, when/if they ask the question, usually make a note for a floor manager if you answer: “actually, you were out of Apple Strudel, and I do so love your Strudel!”

    Taylorism in general and in scripted language in particular has another downside: it makes the worker to feel like an automation, a small keg(is that the word?) in a giant machine, completely substitutable. No individuality->no personal responsibility. I say what I’m told to say, I don only what I’m scripted to do: the attitude that’s sort of counterproductive to the purpose of customer service.

  8. These annoying scripts are also used to manipulate customers in sales situations. For example, the waiter introduces himself and gives you a long rundown of the specials, before you can get a word in edgewise. This is rude and annoying, but probably effective because for the customer the path of least resistance is to wait for the human tape loop to pause and then to order something from the list of suggestions.

  9. Bill…even if one feels the need for scripts (and this usually reveals serious deficiencies in the hiring and/or motivation of front-line employees) the idea that a *branch manager* would not be allowed to have her people deviate from a corporate- or regional- level script (as in my bank example) shows a lack of appropriate delegation and, very likely, a transfer of power to “staff” people who have supposed expertise in something (branding, maybe) but no real accountability for results.

  10. Finely observed, David. The example that always annoys me is the preposterous obsession with “Vision Statements” and “Mission Statements” and with printing them on every document. (“The Vision of the Third Floor Janitorial Closest is to provide excellent janitorial services to the people of the third floor.”) I wrote an item making fun of this obsession a couple of years ago: “What Drives Us Closer to Our Vision Gets Prioritized.”

    Contrast all this Tayloristic speech with the clever operator of a Boston subway line I used to ride, who got people to laugh by mocking these scripted messages When the subway car pulled into the last stop he used to get on the speaker and say, “We are now arriving at Alewife Station, please put your seat backs and tray tables in the full upright and locked position. On behalf of myself and the entire train crew I’d like to thank you for riding with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. We hope you have a pleasant stay here at the Alewife Station or wherever your travels may take you.”

    Everybody always left the train with a smile.

    —Bob O’Hara

  11. I’ve worked at call centers in and out of various places and they all have silly little intro and salutations that one is supposed to mumble through. One place had something like, “Thank you for calling the Total Service Call Center Helpdesk (of death), my name is Josh, how may I be of assistance today?” What was crazy is that this was a corporate helpdesk. We helped actual employees with computer problems. In other words, we had a captive audience, these weren’t customer’s, they were co-workers. Yet, we were supposed to still recite through this crap. I’d usually just say, “Helpdesk, This is Josh, [how] can I help you?”. Most of the time I’d just leave the how off and just say the last bit to relay the fact that now it is your turn to talk to me and tell me what ills your computer. Most people would respond, “I dunno, can you?” Oh you so witty, har har har. I’d say, “Depends on what you got?” If your looking for someone to stroke your ego then I suggest you hang up and call back. If you need someone who will actually fix your computer problem the way it actually needs to be fixed instead of the way you think it needs to be fixed, then I’m your guy.

  12. I have to work at a corporate call center also, and I can’t tell you how much I loath the semi-scripted responses, the list of things that we must say, the constant mandated feedback sessions with a supervisor, in which no credit is ever given for being truly responsive and helpful to a customer… oh, the list of what we must do and say is practically endless and of no interest to anyone who doesn’t work in one of these hellholes.

    In fact, my detestation of this call center is so complete and universal that I have sworn an oath in blood that once I am done with it (as soon as enough people buy copies of the Adelsverein Trilogy that I have a reliable income stream from royalties!) I will drive a block out of the way of the physical location, and never set foot in any of the hotel properties for which I take reservations – or in that city where is located the hotels that I supposedly specialize in.

    Be kind to the next person you talk to, under these circumstances … on the other end of the line is a human being, dying a little, every minute.

  13. Everyone should read Taylor [link goes to gutenberg free text] for the same reason that everyone should see Citizen Kane: both were remarkable and influential works of their time but pretty much a yawn today. As an Engineering student (Lehigh University) I had to read Taylor. I also had to read about just-in-time manufacturing.

    As for all the scripted calling I think it has little to do with Taylorism. I think it has to do with cover-your-ass-ism. If you give employees something they have to say they are less likely to say something rude. If you still get complaints about rudeness then ratchet up the politeness of the required speech to excessive levels (easier than firing the rude).

    Why would a small neighborhood businesses do this too? Everyone wants to seem bigger than they are. As a web developer I’ve been asked to imitate big company websites; big company websites are usually steaming piles of committee compromise so this isn’t a good thing. But people frequently want it anyway.

  14. Sgt Mom…I’m curious…is the call center actually part of the hotel chain, or is an a call service outsourcing operation which does work for multiple companies?

  15. David – it’s an independent mega-corporation which contracts with multiple corporations to do their call-center work: in this case, it has a contract with the corporation which owns the hotel chain.

    Occasionally, callers are quite surprised to learn that their calls are being answered in Texas, but grateful that they aren’t being answered in New Delhi…

  16. I blame a lot of this on the emphasis of process over purpose. While developing better processes can be a great advantage for companies, especially when they have to hire lower quality people for rather important, but repetitive or low-leverage tasks. Yet, along the way to many companies forget that there is a specific PURPOSE that should be advanced by the implementation of the process.

    In many of these cases, if they just asked themselves what the purpose of a standard greeting was (as Jack notes above, much of it is to keep employees from being accidently or intentionally rude!), they’d likely strip down these stupid statements and put something relevant and social in it’s place.

  17. A lot of present-day process thinking seems to put the emphasis on micromanagement of individual steps without appropriate thinking about the overall process flow…like specifying precisely what words a call center agent must say while not paying enough attention to thinking out the whole sequence of events required to address various kinds of problems. The manufacturing analogy would be an auo assembly line in which a worker is told precisely how to install a seat…but nobody notices that the seat is being installed *before* a bolt which must go underneath it, and wasted effort is required to take it out, install the bolt, and put it back in again.

  18. A good source on Taylor and the social imact of his ideas is “The One Best Way” by Robert Kanigel. (It’s interesting to note that Lenin was a big fan of Taylorism/Fordism, which he viewed as the key to rapid industrialization in a country with millions of unskilled and illiterate workers.)

    Other pioneers of “scientific management” included Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, best known as the parents in the book “Cheaper by the Dozen.” Their areas of focus ranged from bricklaying to surgery to kitchen appliances.

  19. Tatyana,

    the word you’re looking for is “cog”.


    IMO, it’s important for people who answer the phone for a particular business to know how they’re going to answer before they pick up… but not important for them to all be using the same script. At my first job, our receptionist would always pick up the phone and say “good morning” or “good afternoon” and our company name. Others would answer the phone with the company name and their name, or the company name and “how can I help you”. Typical greetings were no more than 10 words, made it clear to the customer who they were talking to, and then shut up and let them talk.

    As for grocery stores and “did you find everything”, very often the cashier will (a) know where something is and be able to call someone to bring one right away, or (b) know that the store doesn’t carry the item but know somewhere else that does, or (c) be able to tell you that the item is out of stock and when it will next be stocked, or (d) be able to suggest a substitute. I find the question to be clear, concise, and occasionally helpful.

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