Are you being fed a line? 5 secrets for breaking through the script

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By Christopher Elliott

Talk to me.

That’s all customers like you want when they call a company. They want someone to talk to them.

But corporations don’t always talk back. Last week, I mentioned the second-generation form letters many consumers were getting. Turns out there’s a little more to the story.

For the better part of the last decade, large companies have scripted many of their most common call-center responses. What does that mean? Well basically, when you contact a company with a question, the agent can type in the issue into their computer and receive a “scripted” response that will answer the question. Then they read it back to you.

It’s done mostly with online chats, but to some extent by phone, too. Try this: Call your PC support desk and ask for help. Noticed that little pause between when you ask the question and get an answer? Does the reply seem … well, as if someone read it? Odds are, you’re being fed a line. Literally.

Although the most innovative companies are getting rid of scripting altogether, others are doubling down. I know, because I hear from their customers. They describe the frustration of being stuck in this surreal conversation with call center agents, who talk to them without actually solving their problems. (Here’s our guide to resolving your consumer problem.)

They’re in call script hell.

You never know when you’re going to get trapped in a scripted call. My advice has always been to stay off the phone as much as possible, since it doesn’t create a paper trail. But there is a way out. (Related: The biggest complaint mistakes you’ll ever make.)

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Ask if they’re reading

Nothing jolts agents out of a script faster than asking them if they’re reading a script. You don’t have to be confrontational about it. You might even turn it into a joke. “Did you just read that answer?”

Pick up the pace

Scripting only works when the agent has time to pull up a response. If you quicken the pace of the conversation by indicating that you’re pressed for time, you may be able to short-circuit the process. Remember, the object here is to get a real response from an agent — not some corporate double-speak that makes you go round and round in circles. Faster is better.

Ask them a question to which there can be no scripted answer

If the trick is to simply disengage the agent from a script and get a real answer, you might try something to which there can be no scripted response. “Where are you?” followed by “How’s the weather?” may be enough to crack the script continuum. It may not be enough to keep it that way. But stay with me.

Request a supervisor

Even though call center supervisors have access to all the call center scripts, they are essentially working without one when your call is transferred to them. But getting one can be tough. Call center workers are known to transfer “supervisor” calls to colleagues, who just continue reading from their scripts. Be sure to ask to speak with the agent’s direct supervisor.

Answer the question with a question

Only use this as a last resort, because as far as strategies go, this one is as annoying as being fed a line. Answer the question with another question. It’s a last resort because while it may result in the agent going off-script, it may also make the employee disconnect the call and make a notation in your record that you were a problem caller. (They can do that.) Hopefully, it will never come to that.

Smart companies and organizations are jettisoning their call center scripts in favor of real dialogue. The only companies that continue using them are the misguided corporations who think they can rely on an uneducated, inarticulate workforce of call center drones who simply read from their computers instead of helping customers.

If you find that none of these solutions work, you can always hang up and try again. Or you can try communicating with a company through email or social media.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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