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Want a better Customer Service Experience? Teach Employees Improv

I’m pretty sure having to call customer support is up there with going to the dentist or public speaking in terms of things we actually like doing. I mean, when was the last time you actually had a positive time calling a customer support line? Companies know that these frontline staff members are a key cornerstone to any brand’s overall experience. So how can businesses turn calling customer support into a competitive advantage? One word: Improv.

According to a Fast Co Design article by Daniel Sobol and Toby Bottorf, the key to developing killer customer service begins on a snowy street in Russia, a short distance from Red Square. This is where director Konstantin Stanislavsky helped found the Moscow Art Theater in 1898. It’s here where Stanislavsky turned Western drama and acting techniques and training on their head. Stanislavski believed that the true magic of theater came only when an audience felt as if the characters on stage were living out the story, instead of reciting a memorized script. To achieve this, Stanislavski used techniques of improvisation in rehearsal to create performances so real they felt improvised themselves.

How does all this relate to corporate customer service? Well according to Sobol and Bottorf, “The best services are also the ones that feel improvised.” It turns out that “Customers respond poorly to those that feel robotic, automatic, or overly rehearsed. They want to be treated like a person and know that their situation is being handled based on their specific needs in the moment.” So, if companies really want to turn customer support into a competitive advantage, they may want to take some tips from Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theater. If businesses can teach (and more importantly apply) some of the valuable lessons Stanislavsky preached about actor training, then they will be able to design a better service experience.

Loosen the script

One of the most renowned playwright of the Moscow Art Theater was Anton Pavloich Chekhov. If you look at his plays, you’ll notice that they all seem underwritten. “Simply reading the scripts, characters can seem preoccupied and trivial, and many readers find the plot, frankly, quite dull” point out Sobol and Bottorf. By not constraining his actors, Checkhov’s believed it would help create a more powerful connection with the audience. This way the play would seem to be unfolding in the most realistic way possible, instead of it looking like actors reciting memorized scripts.

What this means for businesses is “The best script for a service should be similarly underwritten, in order to leave space for action and improvisation by managers and service agents,” say Sobol and Bottorf. Let’s look at an example. Fortune magazine interviewed American Express EVP of customer service, Jim Bush, who explained the philosophy behind the company’s customer service shift: “We converted from a robotic, scripted environment to a conversational environment that brings the personality to life and brings one-to-one connections, which is what ultimately builds and sustains relationships.” The results have nee nothing short of spectacular for Amex – winning best customer service for the last six consecutive years.

Train to improvise

“If we are to deliver good services, we need to permit our staff to be comfortable enough to react and respond in the moment.” Like actors rehearsing for a play, it’s important to train customer service staff to improvise. This strategy prepares individuals for that inevitable scenario where a script won’t provide much help. Sobol and Bottorf suggest incorporating role playing in customer support training as a way to help employees prepare. “Playing out scenarios — not scripts — equips staff to understand how to react honestly to any situation and develop strong relationships with guests.”

Know your role, your character, your brand

Being effective at going off script, requires a clear and strong understanding of the guardrails – the parameters in which you’re allowed to work. Actors improvise within a clear set of constraints: their role, their environment, and the established world of the play. Companies should provide the same guidelines for their customer service reps. “The company brand provides these guardrails. Understanding the personality of the brand helps create the world within which the service agent can improvise,” says Sobol and Bottorf. To assist in identifying the personality of a brand, the two suggests a simple exercise of asking employees “If this product/service were a person, what would their personality traits be?” By going through such an exercise, really helps flush out how people view key important brand aspects.

If empowering customer service agents to go off script helps create the best customer experience possible, then it’s important that businesses take advantage of it. “We need to support our service agents with consistent brand touch points that help them get into character and perform their roles,” states Sobol and Bottorf. In the end, customer support is just like theater: it’s all about connecting and building positive relationships in the moment.

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