Are you stuck in call center script hell? Here’s how to tell

It happened again last week. My superfast 10Mbps Internet connection died. It had flickered on and off for weeks, ever since upgrading from a 5Mbps account.

But now it was gone. Expired. Kaput.

I called CenturyLink, my DSL provider, and explained that I’d tried all the usual troubleshooting steps – including unplugging the modem and resetting it – and asked if they could send a technician to my office to take a closer look.

And that’s when I found myself in Script Hell.

More than ever these days, operators in large call centers are using scripts – pre-written responses to common questions – to deal with consumer complaints like mine.

Scripts serve several purposes for a company. They give an operator an appropriate response and define his or her boundaries, when it comes to resolving a problem. Scripts can be helpful in the short run, but research suggests that over the long term, they hurt employee morale.
For customers, scripts usually only serve one purpose: to aggravate them.

“I’m very sorry for the trouble,” the representative told me. “I am going to help you fix this.”

He did not.

Instead, he asked me to reset the modem, which, I had already explained to him, I’d tried. And then, unbelievably, he asked me to try driving to Office Depot to buy a new modem, because obviously, something was wrong with the one I had. The very same one a CenturyLink representative had installed just a few weeks ago.

Was this guy listening to me?

No. He was reading from a script, which said: If someone calls with a connection problem, you need to try these steps before calling a technician.
How do you know you’re in Script Hell?

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It turns out there are several telltale signs. (Stick around; next week I’ll share some tips on how to get out of the script inferno in which you find yourself.)

1. Answers are questions
Scripted call centers are trained to answer many questions with questions – particularly those they don’t want to answer or can’t answer. “When you ask a question like, ‘Where are you?’ the answer is, ‘What do you mean?’,” says business consultant Michael Caputo. In that case, a call center worker may not want to divulge that he’s in India or the Philippines, so the response is intended to distract you from the issue at hand.

2. Repeats
Call center workers tend to repeat what you’ve just said when they are following a script. That’s the conclusion of reader Joe Farrell, who remembers a recent experience of trying to find a missing airline ticket number. ““I would say, ‘I am calling to address a lack of a confirmed ticket number in my reservation more than 24 hours after purchase,’” he said. “And then he would say, ‘So, you are calling about the lack of a ticket number in your reservation.” That happened several times – even though Farrell had clearly explained his problem up front.

3. Pauses
Call center workers have to take a minute to read the appropriate response. “If their responses are preceded by long pauses and then they give instructions in a rapid-fire manner, then they have likely looked up what to do next and are reading those instructions to you,” says Brian Vinson, a former Microsoft call center supervisor and current IT director for TRC Engineering Services. “That’s another clue.”

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4. Sounds like reading
“You know a rep is reading a script because you can hear them reading,” says Miriam Nelson, who heads Aon Hewitt’s call center practice. She adds that you’re most likely to come across the reading representatives – starting, stopping, and articulating words in a certain way – at low-end, high-volume outbound sales centers. “These are not designed to really solve problems, so when you interject a question, it really throws them,” she adds.

5. Ignores or downplays your grievance
That happened to me when I phoned my DSL provider. Even though I had described the various steps I had taken to remedy the problem, it didn’t seem to get through. To be fair, the representative immediately changed course when I said that I felt I wasn’t being listened to. Others aren’t as fortunate. As a consumer advocate, I often hear from customers who simply are not listened to when they call a company.

My story had a happy ending, by the way. CenturyLink sent a technician, who discovered a line problem. It turns out the phone line needed to be reset to accommodate the 10Mbps speeds.

I had convinced the call center employee to go off-script, which may be one of the best ways of getting the customer service to which you’re entitled. Next week, I’ll show you how I did it.

(Photo: BP/Flickr Creative Commons)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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