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Stephanie Paul hands a receipt to a customer at the Chick-fil-A on Brainerd Road on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Chick-fil-A is just one of countless corporations that trains employees to use scripted phrases in their customer interactions.
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'How may I deliver greatness?' Corporations make employees use customer-service scripts, but what to customers think?

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Chattanoogans have their say

Times Free Press readers weigh in on scripted greetings on the newspaper’s Facebook page. Here are some of their responses.

› My personal favorite is Welllllcome to MOE’S!

— Jennifer Hudson Rimback, Chattanooga

› I don’t eat at Moe’s Southwest Grill, because I feel like I’m getting yelled at when I walk in the door.

— Celeste Feagin Burke, Hixson

› I think it’s nice when you go into a fast food chain, whatever the name of the place happens to be, and people treat you with respect. They seem to care and [be] thankful that you are indeed helping pay their salary. So, yes, if you want to call it scripted, then I’m OK with it. Better than someone being rude. My two cents, only because you asked. Now I’m hungry.

— David Jones, Ringgold, Ga.

› Employees should, of course, be required to be pleasant toward customers, but they should also be allowed to be individuals instead of being treated like mindless robots.

— Darryl Hayes, Rocky Face, Ga.

› I think scripted responses are a lot better than the alternative of being ignored. However, my pet peeve is when people holler to greet you from far away or behind you in the store, and you have to quit whatever you were doing, squint to hunt and find them, and reply in order to avoid being rude yourself.

— Sarah Foot DiNicolantonio, Chattanooga

› Scripted greetings make me feel like a business is uniform and runs like a well-oiled machine. If employees are following these mandatory scripts, they must be happy in general. However your employer directs you to deal with customers, you, as an employee, are required to follow the rules. Your place of employment is paying you to do a job for their business. If you don’t like their rules, quit or start your own business. If you as a patron don’t like it, spend your money elsewhere. Easy Peasy.

— Gary and Tiffani Stirnemann, Ringgold, Ga.

› Folks are always complaining about the rudeness of sales people — now why would using common manners be a problem? Scripted or not. Maybe it is scripted to teach manners to those who have none.

— Patricia Badeau, Chattanooga

› I would rather hear all the kind greetings instead of someone just standing there looking at you and not saying a word or being rude.

— Connie Vandiver-Rogers, Chattanooga

› I work in hospitality. Yes, the greeting is scripted. But once you become comfortable you can sort of make the greeting your own. Me and my manager answer the phone differently, but professionally.

— Rachel Galorath, Chattanooga

 

"How may I help deliver greatness today?"

If you call a Kohl's in Chattanooga, or anywhere else in the country, that's how the department store's employees answer the phone. It's just one example of customer-service scripts that businesses here and elsewhere encourage workers to use.

Chick-fil-A employees say, "How may I serve you?" "It's my pleasure!" and they call customers "sir" and "ma'am." An employee chimes out, "Welcome to Books-A-Million!" each time a customer walks through the bookstore chain's front door. Ditto for Moe's Southwest Grill, where employees say, "Welcome to Moe's!"

The catchphrases must make sense, you could argue, because who doesn't like good service? And many large, successful companies require their employees to use scripted phrases meant to put the customer at ease, such as "You can order when you're ready" at Taco Bell's drive-through — and never "Can I take your order?" which puts too much pressure on customers.

However, a professor who's studied the subject says that customers can spot a scripted greeting. And there's the question of whether it's fair to make customer service employees parrot corporate-speak phrases that would sound stilted in day-to-day conversation. (Has anyone ever asked a friend or family member how they can "deliver greatness?")

'I think they're good'

Scripted customer service interactions get a thumbs up from Dan Zink, an instructor for the new Hospitality and Tourism Management program at Chattanooga State Community College.

"I like 'em. I think they're good," said Zink. "At the fast-food scale, when you have the same opportunity 1,000 times a day, it's too easy to say something wrong if you don't have a good habit."

Zink's work history includes being the vice president of operations for Dog'n'Suds, a Midwestern fast-food chain that sold hot dogs and root beer — until Sonic Drive-In bought the chain and converted the stores to Sonics.

"We always said, 'Welcome to Dog'n'Suds. May I take your order please?'" Zink said.

While "May I take your order please" is a no-no at Taco Bell where customers' vehicles trip a magnetic wire and trigger the drive-thru employee's headset, it made sense at Dog 'n' Suds, Zink said, since Dog'n'Suds' customers parked in stalls and pressed a button when they were ready to order.

Times Free Press readers had mixed opinions about scripted greetings, when asked about them on the newspaper's Facebook page.

"Customer service is very important and welcoming your paying customers is part of customer service," commented Signal Mountain's Denise Poteet-Thomas. "I've been into stores where they don't say a thing, and l walk back out too."

Kiera A. Beck, of Jasper, Tenn., had a different take.

"On behalf of retail and former retail employees everywhere, we don't like being forced to say scripted lines where feelings are required to be mustered from the very depths of our souls in attempt to sound genuine so we do not go insane," Beck commented.

Zink said higher-end businesses are moving away from scripts toward general guidelines for employees to follow in their interactions with customers.

"Most of the finer establishments are getting away from [scripts]. But they have to have a high-level employee that won't mess it up," he said.

Ritz-Carlton inspired Chick-fil-A

Chick-fil-A's employees began to use "my pleasure" after Truett Cathy, the founder of the chain of fast food chicken restaurants, said "thank you" at a Ritz-Carlton Hotel and the man behind the counter said, "My pleasure."

"That's something that Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-fil-A, helped institute," said Nick Goebeler, the owner-operator of the Chick-fil-A at the Brainerd Village shopping center in Chattanooga. "We try to use more elevated language, in the spirit of Ritz-Carlton."

"'How may we serve you?' is our basic greeting over the headset," Goebeler said. When it's a customer's turn at the counter, Goebeler said Chick-fil-A's employees say, "I can serve the next guest right here."

Using such phrases gets so ingrained that they don't sound scripted, he said.

"It just kind of rolls out naturally," said Goebeler, who added, "You start dreaming about it after a while."

People can spot scripted interactions with service workers, and they didn't seem to mind them during a simulated hotel check-in — but they didn't like a scripted interaction with a hotel concierge, said the co-author of a 2012 Cornell University School of Hotel Administration study. It used video vignettes of an actor checking into a hotel and speaking with a hotel concierge with the actor using heavily-scripted, moderately-scripted and loosely-scripted conversations.

"People could, indeed, tell the difference between those three [scripts],"said Professor Don G. Wardell, the chairman of the department of operations and information systems at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah.

"In the check-in process, we found that the customers didn't mind scripting. I think the idea is, you go into an interaction and expect certain steps to be followed," Wardell said. "On average, the people didn't perceive a reduction in quality. When [concierges] use a more robotic or pre-written script, then we don't like it very much."

Some employees prefer to 'be natural'

Researchers interviewing hotel employees for the Cornell study found a number of workers disliked giving scripted responses to customers' questions, Wardell said.

"Several of them said they didn't like it very much, and they would rather be natural," he said.

Chick-fil-A doesn't want its employees to spout scripts, Goebeler said. Instead, it tries to get them to sense guests' emotional states. And Goebeler tries to hire people who put customers first.

"You want to hire that person who has that genuine spirit of service," Goebeler said. "We train them to respond to the guest. Some people are just flat-out in a hurry. You feel their pace, and then you act appropriately. If [a customer's] in a really bad mood, you don't want to be in a super-happy mood."

Travis Silver, a customer service specialist at the Books-A-Million on Highway 153 in Hixson, doesn't mind greeting customers when they come in, and he riffs on the standard greeting.

"Welcome to Books-A-Million guys, how's it going?" he'll ask. "Or 'welcome folks' — it's always something just to greet the customer.'"

Silver has seen the scripted greeting make grumpy customers happier.

"Sometimes, I see people kind of lighten up a bit," Silver said. "It's really cool seeing it."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/MeetsForBusiness or twitter.com/meetforbusiness or 423-757-6651.

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