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Customer Service Scripts & The Jungle Cruise

Lately, I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of customer interaction scripts, you know, those little bits of canned dialog that people who represent large companies are required to say to you.

I contacted my cable broadband provider on Thursday night because my internet connection, which has been increasing flaky the last few months, was starting to get really bad. Of course, being a complete idiot, I decided to use the Internet to contact them, thinking I would save myself a phone call. I really hate phone calls, and will sometimes do stupid things to avoid them.

I contacted a succession of 4 ‘chat-room operators’ at Comcast, each of whom recited various randomized bits of pseudo-empathetic cut & paste dialog with me, such as

“I am sorry you are experiencing difficulties with your Internet connection”

and

“I understand how frustrating an intermittent connection can be.”

Each time, they would collect my personal information, and the description of my problem, and then I would get cut off, due to the bad connection. The last thing I saw each operator say, as I looked on in mute frustration was:

“I’m sorry, I cannot see your responses. Is there anything else I can help you with today? Than thank you for contacting Comcast. Good night!”

I eventually came to my senses and used the telephone.

This morning, I received an unsolicited phone call. Like most of these calls, the operator starting yammering from a script, and didn’t let me get a word in edgewise for about a minute. It was something about a survey for “communications services,” and he had a 30-second disclaimer he had to get through about how he wasn’t trying to sell me anything. When he finally shut up, I said “sorry I don’t have time for this,” hung up, and continued to eat my cereal. If I were less polite, I would have hung up while he was
yammering.

Later that day, I went to the local Vons supermarket. When my path got within 10 feet of the chat-circle surrounding one of the employees in the produce department, a collision-test compelled him to smile cheerily and say, “Hello, how are you today?”. Every employee at the produce department at every Vons I’ve been to does this. Once I replied by saying, “I’m good, but I’m sorry they made you say that.”

Later that evening, I was pumping gas and a homeless guy came up to me. He didn’t speak English very well, but he had a one word script.

“Change?”

I gave him a buck.

Then I remembered the conversation I had next to the company coffee pot on Friday morning. Something about the weather and how much I was looking forward to the weekend.

Scripts.

I guess we all engage in formulaic conversation on a daily basis. There’s a reason why we do it. It smooths things over and makes certain parts of life less complicated. But I still get immensely irritated by customer service scripts, especially when an employee is using a script that was obviously prepared by someone else. The more incongruous the person and the script the more it irritates me.

Why do companies use these scripts, I wonder? Is it expressly for the purpose of making me feel manipulated? I’m pretty sure it isn’t.

If I had to wager a guess, I’d say that customer service scripts exist so that the company can maintain a consistent quality of service, and communicate a consistent message to the customer. It is a way for the suits back at headquarters to control the representative/customer experience.

Scripts are also used because companies want to maximize sales. When a waiter at a chain restaurant offers you a blooming onion before taking your order, a sales-driven script is at work. I tend to resent sales-driven scripts even more than the consistency-driven scripts, because they tend to inject irrelevancy into the interaction.

But mostly, scripts are used because the suits want you to have a consistent, and therefore good experience, which I don’t necessarily view as a bad thing. Maybe it’s even altruistic. But the mere fact that a script is in use tends to start things on a bad footing. Surely, the marketing folks must know that most people don’t like scripts. And yet, they use ’em.

* * *

Disdain for corporate scripts is nothing new. Here’s Lily Tomlin as telephone operator Ernestine:

“Here at the Phone Company we handle eighty-four billion calls a year. Serving everyone from presidents and kings to scum of the earth. (snort) We realize that every so often you can’t get an operator, for no apparent reason your phone goes out of order [snatches plug out of switchboard], or perhaps you get charged for a call you didn’t make. We don’t care. Watch this [bangs on a switch panel like a cheap piano] just lost Peoria. (snort) You see, this phone system consists of a multibillion-dollar matrix of space-age technology that is so sophisticated, even we can’t handle it. But that’s your problem, isn’t it ? Next time you complain about your phone service, why don’t you try using two Dixie cups with a string. We don’t care. We don’t have to. (snort) We’re the Phone Company!”
— Lily Tomlin, as Ernestine

Tomlin was channeling public perceptions of how they were being treated by Ma Bell in the 60s. Large organizations have been using scripts for as long as their were large organizations. The oldest customer service scripts still in use are the ones used in church and temple rituals.

People don’t like corporate scripts for the same reasons they don’t like other forms of bad marketing – people don’t like feeling manipulated. If it is obvious that a script is in use, it is obvious you are being manipulated.

Ultimately our disdain for scripts stems from our desire for free will, or at least the illusion of free will. A well written script must provide a convincing simulacrum of free will.

Just as we desire freedom, we prefer it if the people we are talking to are also free. A person who is speaking from a script is not free.

When you are talking to someone who has been instructed to use a script, you are talking to the marketing department instead of to the actual employee in front of you, whose viewpoint may vary immensely from the viewpoint expressed in the script. When scripts are used, it demonstrates that the company hires employees that they do not trust to speak using their own words. It shows the company disdains its own employees.

Some companies eliminate the pesky employee problem by using computers to deliver the scripts, hiring expensive voice talent to speak the lines in an impossibly cheery and erudite way. This is equally preposterous. The companies not only disdain their employees, they disdain the human race!

There are some good voice recognition systems out there, though. The system now used by the phone company to handle 411 information calls is pretty good, I think. And the Meridian voice mail system works pretty well. I don’t mind such automated scripts when they are well written, and delivered well. The telephone company is pretty good at creating such scripts. My local city government is not. The script I recently used for jury duty was pretty awful.

Most of the technical-support-oriented automated scripts I’ve experienced are very poorly written – mostly because such scripts assume that most problems can be identified by a series of multiple choice questions. I especially hate it when I am provided with a list of choices which does not include “other,” and which, invariably, does not include my particular choice.

Most interactions do not lend themselves to computer voice-recognition systems. In these cases, what I seek, as a customer, is real dialog with real humans, who are free to say what they wish to say. When it comes to large companies, this experience seems to be in short supply.

* * *

Sometimes, I think it might be fun to start using my own scripts, in response to the scripts that I am constantly receiving.

“Hello, I’m Jim, and I’ll be your customer today. Would you like to serve me some coffee?”

“That was delicious, would you like me to pay the bill? How much would you like me to tip?”

* * *

“Although you are correct in stating that there is a “Jungle Cruise Script”; the day any one of us actually uses it, is the day The Jungle dies. The only time you might hear us do a “Standard Operating Procedure” (SOP) spiel, is when a supervisor is on our boat!!”
— Anonymouse Disney Employee

Some scripts are the stuff of legend. There are a number of websites devoted to the scripts used by the employees at Disneyland. One of the most famous is the spiel used by the operators of the Jungle Cruise ride, a collection of corny jokes which has slowly mutated over the years, due to the contributions of various employees.

There is something paradoxical about the Jungle Cruise Spiel. The company, Disney, wants all it’s operators to adhere to the script. Nonetheless, today’s script is made from bits and pieces that originated with various creative employees who intentionally deviated from the SOP (standard operating procedure).

If short, if all the cruise operators followed the rules, the Jungle Cruise Script would not exist.

Scripts are intended to insure good interactions with customers. The best scripts are models or records of good interactions with customers. But the best interactions with customers cannot occur when scripts are in use. A paradox, no?

One Response to “Customer Service Scripts & The Jungle Cruise”

  1. Anna Maria Says:

    I like your take on this, but feel if anything you are too benignly disposed towards customer service scripts. I don’t think the first purpose of the script is to make sure customers have a good interaction with the company. I think its first purpose is highly controlling: its intent is to force the interaction into the channels that the company finds acceptable, and make every other kind of communication that falls outside this, including any spontaneous conversation, impossible. The script pretends, however, that a spontaneous conversation is taking place: hence all the chummy calling you by your name with every sentence, and the ‘is there anything else I can help you with today’, which, if you answer it, forces you into implying that you have already been helped, which is often not the case!