To script or not to script?

Fake sincerity and you've got it made

One of the major advantages of large corporations is consistency and scripts are an important tool in achieving it. Sales scripts, email scripts, greeting scripts, closing scripts, goodbye scripts – from “Chicken, chicken, chicken! What combo you pickin’!?” to “Would you like fries with that?” – if there’s an interaction, the big guys have a script for it. There are great advantages in scripting and also some pretty big disadvantages. Fortunately for the small business, agility and creativity can overcome the major disadvantages in a way that would be tough for bureaucratic large corporations to beat.

Fake sincerity and you've got it made

Fake sincerity and you’ve got it made

Some advantages of scripting are professionalism, confidence, predictability and increased sales. A scattered, confused response to a customer’s question or a situation comes across as unprofessional. Scripting combined with practice builds confidence and leads to more consistent, professional presentation. In a phone training session for recruiters, I’ve seen a cold reading of a script that sounded incredibly professional. I’ve also heard competent professionals sound like rookies when they had no presentation prepared. Of course, a practiced presentation is far better but even minimal practice beats going into a situation unprepared. Scripts give the opportunity to increase sales from add-on products and services, as well as increasing sales through more professional presentation. Consistently using, refining and practicing good scripts also creates the opportunity to measure and, ultimately, predict results.

Scripting certainly has its downsides: tired old scripts, unnatural sounding scripts and low employee buy-in. The major drawback to corporate scripts is that people simply don’t sound natural saying someone else’s words. Corporations have systems devoted to this, based on the idea that “Sincerity is everything. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Evaluations of corporate employees in greeting situations typically ask two sets of questions. The first is some variant of “What greeting was used?” with the “right answer” being the approved corporate script. The second is some variation of “Did the greeting sound mechanical and robotic or enthusiastic and sincere?” Employees are coached to make eye contact, smile whether they feel like smiling or not, and practice tone of voice – coached to fake sincerity. The corporate use of scripting is great; trying to fake sincerity is not.

When it comes to faking sincerity, there is perhaps no one better than Jordan Belfort, the “Wolf of Wall Street.” Some of his training session scripts come across as a slick con man (and he was) doing just that. Even so, there are some points worth studying in his approach. Perhaps most importantly, his sales coaching focuses on answering the customers’ objections before they raise them. This involves much more than scripting. It requires the one thing that every small business should strive to do better than anyone else: Knowing. Your. Customers. Second, his scripts have a certain informal style that can work well with signature phrases like, ‘Here’s the thing” and “I don’t know you. You don’t know me.” The key here is that what sounds natural for Belfort can sound like a scripted con from someone else. “Here’s the thing” is a natural phrase for me and I use it. Many of his phrases don’t work for me and I use alternatives.

As a small business owner, you use scripts, too, even if it’s not conscious. There are questions that you’ve been asked so many times that you have a “pat answer.” While the unconscious scripting, like any scripting, makes life easier, it has drawbacks. One drawback to this unconscious scripting is that pat answers by definition come across as “simplified” or “evasive.” Perhaps even worse is that at some point you stopped really thinking about what the customer was asking and focused on the easy answer. Let me repeat that: You. Stopped. Focusing. On. The. Customer. Conscious, written scripting requires you to spend a bit of time thinking about the customer and to think about how your words sound.

Small business has a better option. No, winging it isn’t the better option. That just leads to the “pat answer” or to unprofessional sounding confusion. The better option is letting people script themselves in their own words, with appropriate input and suggestions. The scripts still need to be practiced, but the practice will be easier and the result more natural. You don’t have to fake sincerity, because the words are your own. If you’re writing a script for yourself, take advantage of all the great trainers and writers out there, but use your own natural words and phrases. If you’re helping an employee write a script, input and constructive criticism are great, but don’t force your words into someone else’s mouth. If you hired right, a huge part of what you bought was the employee’s personality. Don’t ask the employee to fake sincerity, ask her to use her own words.

One of my assistant managers at Domino’s Pizza in the early ’90s, and later a national Manager of the Year, thought that answering phones with “Thank you for choosing Domino’s Pizza,” would sound better than the standard at the time, “Thank you for calling Domino’s Pizza.” We skipped permission and implemented the change, ready to ask for forgiveness if necessary. Because we were in a mid-sized franchise with the franchise offices 50 feet away, forgiveness was never necessary and the use of the new phrase spread, first through the franchise and later the corporation. It’s now the corporate standard. Small business owners and managers can make that kind of word choice, consciously, and make scripts better any time. In this context, as so many others, the ability to turn on a dime creates huge opportunities.

The use of scripts for most businesses, at least in some situations, is inevitable. The question is whether you will use good ones well, bad ones poorly, or something in between. The worst of all worlds is the unconscious scripting of trite, sarcastic pat answers paired with unprepared, unprofessional confusion when the pat answers aren’t ready. The best solution is well written, constantly honed, scripts written in the natural words of the person who will use them and practiced to perfection.