Scripting: Friend or Foe?

By Peggy Wynne Borgman, CEO, Preston Wynne, Inc.

There's a debate in the hospitality industry these days about the benefits of scripting. Scripting addresses one of the challenges of delivering great service by providing consistent words and phrases for employees to use in specific situations. Scripting is designed to make everyone sound more professional and—one hopes--intelligent.

Friend or Foe?

Opponents of scripting include my friend Holly Stiel, the customer service guru. Holly believes that scripting can take the heart and soul out of serving others. Scripting, she feels, causes many employees to respond robotically instead of engaging with guests. In my own experience, the repetitive and predictable nature of scripting can sometimes be a mild irritant, if that script is delivered without emotional authenticity. More on that later.

Perhaps the most famous practitioner of scripting in the world of hospitality is Ritz Carlton. The Ritz has a signature lexicon that is used by all its employees. Scripting isn't a stand-alone tactic—it's a tool that can't be used successfully in isolation. (To wit: the Safeway clerk addressing you by name, in one "moment" of faux customer service that feels well, weird!) Scripting is part of a strategy of employee alignment—getting everyone on the same page, and delivering the same experience in Philadelphia that you'll enjoy in Pasadena.

You won't find a Ritz Carlton employee responding to a guest's "Thank you," with a "No problem." Instead, they'll respond, "My pleasure." This signature phrase supports the credo of "Ladies and Gentlemen Serving Ladies and Gentlemen." Instead of answering, "Sure!" or even "Yes" to a customer request, a Ritz employee may say, "Certainly," or "Absolutely," to convey competence and responsiveness. Ritz Carlton's elegant language is synonymous with their brand. Even former Ritz Carlton employees find it's a hard habit to break. (One of our spa managers is an alumna of Ritz, and she "pollinated" our team with Ritzisms when she joined us.)

In the seat-of-the-pants world of spa operations, scripting can be a unifying force. Our workforce is comprised of many people who have never had to deliver "world class" service in their previous jobs. Expectations of spas are higher than for any other hospitality industry business—higher than restaurants, and even higher than hotels. Spas promise perfection: "heaven," "bliss," and "nirvana". So even if you're a one-location day spa in a suburb of Milwaukee with eight employees, some of your guests will insist on comparing you to the Four Seasons spa they visited on vacation. Since the guest experience is dependent on outstanding communication skills, scripting is one of the fastest and easiest ways to nudge your team toward a higher level of service. Not only does scripting support good customer service, it optimizes sales. ("When would you like to have your next massage?" is an example of a scripted, "presumptive" close.)

Clearly, the degree to which an interaction is precisely scripted depends a great deal on how often it is repeated. Your spa phone and check-in greetings happen dozens of times each day. More structure is also required in this type of "gateway" exchange, where a first impression is being created, and the tone set for more complex interactions.
Reciting scripted lines is not natural behavior, especially if an employee considers him- or herself a "people person" or a gifted schmoozer. Scripted responses can take some getting used to, and for some, it can feel constraining, even pretentious. You may also consider working with individual employees to create personal scripts for them to use. Most important, your team needs to understand why scripts are vital to giving good service.

My husband and I were enjoying an al fresco lunch at a lovely seaside resort in Southern California recently. Also enjoying our lunch were a number of sparrows, several of whom left calling cards on the tabletop. I asked our server for assistance in cleaning up the mess. As he wiped it off, I thanked him, and he responded reflexively, "My pleasure." Pleasure? Dear me, I hope not. The young man was parroting, not communicating.
We know the difference when a great actress and a mediocre actress recite the same lines. In the mediocre actress' performance, even an award winning play can sound like a dud. Scripts are simply tools. They can, as the saying goes, be used for good or evil. Your team must still bring them to life with thoughtful usage, "making it fresh daily." A manager's job doesn't end with providing a script. You're still responsible for hiring great people, and coaching and directing your customer service cast. After all, the most satisfying and memorable customer service happens during heartfelt, authentic moments. The improvised, ad-libbed ones.