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

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.

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.

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.

Should companies use call center scripts?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • polexia_rogue

    scripts reflect what people are ALLOWED to do.

    possible exception- they MIGHT not understand your question
    – so when they go to their script they will be looking in the wrong place and giving an answer that makes to sense. —CALL AGAIN. it is worth it to retell your issue to a different person.

    but this not the fault of the script.

    if you get another person who says your issue is not allowed or impossible then go straight to social media. a supervisor will likely give the same answer or worse they will lie to get you off the phone; example- “sure you’ll get a refund, just give it 3 weeks!”- then when you call in 3 weeks later “there is no record of any refund promise.”

    but not the fault of the script. of there were no script then companies would need to hire trained, knowledgeable employees for call centers- and then they could not abuse them as easily.

  • Josh S

    Absolutely, call centers should use scripts. It ensures consistency with the CSR giving correct information and making sure the policy is enforced/used properly.

    BUT, seasoned employees (whether supervisors, tier 2 support, or whoever) should be allowed to go ‘off script’ and make things right for the percentage of callers whose issues don’t fall neatly into the pre-scripted responses. AND, the path to get to one of those seasoned employees should be baked into the scripts.

    Like this:
    Caller: I have [problem].
    CSR1: [Script]
    Caller: That doesn’t answer my problem. Because [odd situation]
    CSR1: [Script says transfer call to seasoned CSR2]
    CSR2: I hear that you’ve got [odd situation] that isn’t answered by [script]. How can I resolve that for you?
    Caller: [Proposed solution] …

    Yes, this is an ideal world sort of thing. But it’s easy enough to do without forcing consumers to be the pain in the a** required to get to someone who can do something about a one-off situation, and without requiring a 3rd party consumer advocate getting involved. It just needs a company to see that the small investment reaps rewards in customer satisfaction and loyalty in addition to reducing repeat call volume.

  • Cat

    AArrgghh- The most annoying thing about this is when they pick out a word or phrase and start reading the script for it. But they never actually listened and the script has nothing to do with your question. Add in a language barrier and the fact that they know very little without referring to their script and you have some of the worst customer service available. I think they hope that if they frustrate and waste enough of your time you will eventually just give up.

  • MarkKelling

    Scripts can be helpful in pinpointing the real issue the customer is calling about and reducing the time spent on the phone per customer, such as the “My machine is not working” complaint to which the scripted reply is “Do you have it plugged in and did you turn it on?” This actually covers about half the calls.

    Unfortunately, given the language barrier between callers and the staff working the phones since they are usually not in the same part of the world, this doesn’t always work even with well scripted situations when the CSR doesn’t understand the actual question. They will end up going down one path in the script that is totally irrelevant to the actual situation. Also, when the CSR has no real knowledge of the company’s products, what their business is, or probably has never used or even seen the products, they have no point of reference to assist them in understanding. Until more companies realize that saving a few dollars by using third world call centers staffed with script reading drones does not help build customer loyalty the situation will not improve.

  • SoBeSparky

    Scripts exist not to thwart customers but usually to give the best, most accurate response to a given question…most of the time. So lack of call center scripts might mean less appropriate/accurate information.

    The problem, as always, is the exception. Once I asked for a supervisor and got, “We are all supervisors here.” Other times, of course, the hold time goes as high as 15-20 minutes for the busy supervisor to become available. The “ask for a supervisor” rarely works well anymore, unless I am dealing with a known high-quality vendor.

    Many times, I avoid the dreaded script by simply calling back during normal business hours. I find more and more off-peak calls are going to the Philippines, India or wherever, while M-F, 9-5 are handled domestically with more experienced personnel.

  • MarkKelling

    And if you are calling a bank, airline, or any company where you have something more than the basic relationship with them, you are more likely to get a higher level CSR in your country who is not working so closely with scripts.

  • John Baker

    Here’s why businesses use scripts. It allows them to put a less trained person on the phone to weed out the easy/quick fix solutions without having to dedicate a highly trained, and therefore more expensive, representative. As the family tech geek, I’ve lost track of the number of issues that I have fixed for my own family that amounted to … Not plugged in, not turned on or incorrect setting. None of these issue require a Level 2 or Level 3 tech support rep. It basic problem solving that base user should do, but rarely do, before calling. Scripts allow a CSR to walk through a workflow diagram to attempt to get you to a solution in the shortest amount of time. It also means that when/if your problem amounts to a Level 2 issue, that CSR doesn’t have to worry if its plugged in or not.

    This is one option and I see it used the most where a company offers free support. Using them saves the company money and allows them to keep offering the free support. The other option would be paid support.

    I have another company I work with that bills for every support call. My call starts at a level 2 rep. If it turns out to be an issue that the company wasn’t aware of or caused by them, they refund the support call. If the issue was in their KB already, I pay for the call. I’m ok with that.

  • Cam

    Yes, but also allow variations.

  • Wayne Dayton

    I push the prompt for French (or Spanish) as less likely to get an offshore agent. I will also specifically state that I want a domestic agent. Nothing riles me more than to call a company that calls itself Bell CANADA or the Royal Bank of CANADA and get someone in India. I also hate it when the call is answered, “Delta Air Lines, Jimmy speaking!”, when it certainly sounds as if Jimmy is really Gurprit…and then to have phoney American-isms inserted like “Oh, how about the Black Hawks winning the Cup?”…I always have an Indian website up on my screen and say that I don’t follow hockey/baseball/basketball/football, but how about that Singh player for Mumbai’s cricket team?

  • norag

    I hate calling in with computer problems because those people can’t skip questions. I usually start with “yes, the power is on. Yes, the screen is on. Yes, I’ve rebooted the machine.” It very seldom helps. I’ve even had “help” desks refuse to go to the next step unless I spend the time to reboot yet again while they wait. If companies want to use scripts, they need a way to go directly to step 15 in the script to deal with knowledgeable users who have already tried the usual things.

  • TonyA_says

    If you have ever been to the Philippines (Yes, it used to be a part of the USA so English is spoken there), where there seems to be a call center in every corner, then it is easy to understand why scripts are needed or mandatory. There is no way you can have that many young people do the work they are doing without scripts. How else can they train them?

  • jerryatric

    There is 1 company this old guy uses & gets excellent results every time – Norton Security
    I have on line chats with people in India & every time they have been great in their advice/support.
    They are probably 1 of the very few who are that good. NO I don’t work for Norton, I am simply giving credit to them for excellent Customer Service. Most companies are terrible to deal with if something goes wrong.

  • emanon256

    I voted no. I have had many instances where I called a company and it sounded like the CSR was reading, this explains it. I always thought it was just the language barrier, and they were trying very hard to speak English, but this makes more sense.

    I often ask where they are, and typically they tell me they are not allowed to answer. But one Winter I was talking to someone with a very heavy accent who told me their name was John and they worked in Chicago. I asked him how the weather was there and he said very hot. Interesting, I never knew Chicago was very hot in the winter.

    Back in the day when I used to supervise in a call center, we never had scripts, and I can guarantee that when someone asked for a supervisor they got me, or one of the other supervisors. It infuriates me today that they flat our refuse to transfer me to a supervisor. In soem rare cases they will talk to a supervisor and then get back to me, which makes me wonder if they actually spoke to a supervisor.

  • emanon256

    Social Media Works! I had a problem with LG. I have a NAS devise from them and the software update file on their website was corrupt, and I needed the update to work with OSX whatever the new version is. I e-mailed and was told to call, I called and was told that I should e-mail. I finally got a supervisor who took down my info and promised a call back, and I never got that call. I called a few mores times, left more messages, e-mailed a few more times and got generic replies. After 3 weeks, I wrote on their Face Book wall. Within 1 hour they wrote me back, said they found the problem file, fixed it, and re-deployed it to the website. I downloaded it and it worked.

    What is the point of their phone and e-mail CSRs? They did absolutely nothing.

  • Darcy Knight

    Was talking to Time Warner yesterday—went online to pay my final bill after a move out of their area, and found that they had scheduled an appointment (on the account I had CLOSED) for the 8th. I went on chat to ask them why. It was either a script or a computer program, and I’m leaning toward the latter (or someone who is not a native English speaker) because not only did he claim he needed to look up my account TWICE (the second time half-way through the conversation), but he (she, it?) claimed not to understand a very basic question.
    Lord, let me never have to deal with Time Warner again….

  • Grant Ritchie

    How about Singh? I love it! Just for the heck of it, I Googled “Mumbai cricket team,” and, amusingly, the name of the team is the “Indians.” I wonder if “Indian” Indians are offended by that? :-)

  • MeanMeosh

    Agreed – the scripts don’t bother me nearly as much as the fact that they always have to start at Step 1, and refuse to move along no matter how many times you tell them that you’ve already done that! The cable companies are just as bad as computer tech support in that regard. I wish there was an option for “I’ve already done basic troubleshooting, I have a more serious issue and need personal help”.

  • bodega3

    I cancelled our Dish Network subscription after calling several times, over a 3 year period to get a billing issue handled that would show up once a year as we paid for a years service in advance. I knew I was speaking to an off shore office and was getting no where with any of the calls. Several months after canceling, I get a call from a US customer service person asking if they could get me back. When I told him my issue and the many calls I made to try and resolve it to no avail, he was surprise as it was a simple fix. But the offshore office stuck to their script and have no authority to do anything but give you corporate speak! We now have Direct TV and so far, so good!

  • MeanMeosh

    I will say that while scripts can be annoying, what is far worse is the phone tree you have to muddle your way through just to get to the script, or even worse, the “interactive voice response” systems that don’t understand what you’re saying and make you repeat something several times and still don’t get it right. I’ve found lately that companies are wising up to the old tricks to defeat the phone tree/IVR, and have made it increasingly difficult to do so (I guess so you can be directed to the correct script?). There needs to be a special place in Hades designated for the corporate VP that invented these things.

  • John Baker


  • bodega3

    Oh lordy, YES!

  • bodega3

    Has anyone ever tried to order checks from Current by phone? What should be a simple call (sometimes the internet is too slow to place the order online and a call is necessary) turned into a 30 minute, stressing inducting order of constantly telling them NO, I don’t want the extras. The last time I told the agent that he need to tell his supervisor that I want nothing else and if he read the script I would place my order elsewhere. It worked!

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    If they can’t hire people with working brains and train them, I understand why scripts exist. I just went through 5 email rounds with Club Carlson (Radisson) with a simple request that they could or would not comprehend, receiving 3 different answers that did not relate to my request. My last email restated my request and asked specifically for a supervisor and I received an email that answered my question the next morning. It’s difficult to believe that people have jobs dealing with customers when they cannot function except to get rid of the customer as quickly as possible.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Have to share my experience with 2 of Chris’ hints to get out of script hell.

    1) Called Sears to schedule a regular maintenance visit for my lawn tractor. Asked the CSR’s name and where she was from. “Betty” from “Kansas City”, she answered. I have no idea what a common woman’s name is in India, but I’m sure it’s not “Betty”. Asked her how her home team, the Cardinals were doing. She said that they were doing very well, thank you ma’am. Told her Cardinals are St. Louis and Royals are Kansas City. I had several things go wrong with my tractor after that maintenance visit. Calls to the Sears Repair Line could not resolve the issues, since they were “off-script”. I wrote to the Sears Home Office and asked why they employ Overseas Call Centers when they portrayed themselves as solidly American or whatever jingoistic slogan they had going at the time. (No response). I sold that lawn tractor and now have a John Deere that’s serviced by a place 1 1/2 miles down the road from me.

    2) My son and my niece worked for 2 different companies, answering inbound calls to a service center. Both were paid extra to play the supervisor part for their shifts, one day a week. Those roles were rotated among the service team, so everyone on the team got to be a “supervisor” for a day. Neither was authorized to handle matters any differently than any other person on their team not playing the supervisor role. Neither was allowed to transfer the call to a real supervisor or manager, and in fact, would be penalized for offering a resolution “off-script”. Both worked regular 9 to 5 office hours.

    With some businesses, in some situations, you just can’t win by calling. I try not to give money to those businesses.

  • Karen

    hahaha “Hello I am happy to help you and I will be solving all of your problems by the end of this phone call” spoken with Indian accent

  • emanon256

    I was working with a company that started to get more phone calls then their call enter could handle, so we did an RFP for a voice response system that could answer basic questions and get people to the right reps with some pre-collected info. One of the companies, and I kid you not, told us that they design the phone system in such a way that 80% of our callers would never reach our reps. They said they did research on “Frustration Levels” and design their system so that most callers give up, and only the legitimate problems get through. I just about spit my coffee all over the room when they were talking about this. The client immediately removed them from the list of companies to consider.

  • emanon256

    Sears used to be a good company back in the day, but they have gone down hill over the past 10 years or so. I stay away now.

  • bodega3

    I knew it! I knew they set these up so people give up :-(

  • bodega3

    I’ll never forget the time I was in in Longs Drugs on a Sunday, which in our area is now CVS, and an elderly lady asked a male checker to speak to the supervisor. The young male checker call up a developmentally handicapped young man that they employ and told the women he was the supervisor. A friend worked at the store at the time and when I told her about this, the young male checker was not seen again working in the store.

  • MeanMeosh

    What’s funny is, my mom’s trick to get telemarketers to quit calling was foiled when they started shipping call centers off to India. My parents moved here from India, so they are still fluent in their language. When a telemarketer would call, she would spout off some gibberish in her native tongue and the hang up, which would usually be enough to get them to never call back. This worked, until the telemarketer on the other end was in an Indian call center, and happened to speak her language. She was embarrassed, but they actually had a very nice conversation about how things were going in Chennai after that :-)

  • TonyA_says

    Re: With some businesses, in some situations, you just can’t win by calling.
    How true. So we really need to buy local and support the local community whenever we can.
    It is our fault if we keep on buying online (from wherever they may be) and expect to get localized service.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Too funny – I was browsing a store online when this popped up! That and a set of recipes for tomorrow. Low carb and the 4th of July just don’t have the same ring to it that “Apple Pie and the 4th of July” does. :)

    Now mind you, I bought that lawn tractor at a local Sears store. (Local is relative for me – anything w/in 25 miles is local, given where I live!) My service calls originally went to a local store. Then Sears outsourced it to “Kansas City”, India. Kind of hard for my local John Deere dealership to outsource, since farming is such an integral part of my community.

    My son works for a nationwide company; he says don’t say the name or he might get in trouble. But they’ve been featured on in the past.
    My niece worked for a very local cable company.

    I’ll tell one more funny story: I was having difficulty getting some health insurance claims processed for my son’s hospitalization, some 25 years ago. Couldn’t get the claim paid, hospital was threatening collections, yada yada yada. I’d been calling the insurance company for 2 months nearly daily and documenting every call, referring back to this call on this date at this time with this person and this outcome was promised and nothing was happening – and they employ my husband. One day, I asked my husband to get me into his building as a guest and point me to the correct floor for claims. He did, and I walked into the Claims Department and spoke face to face with about 3 people, until the last one finally signed his name to the paperwork that cleared the company to pay the hospital. Can’t do that these days, but the expression on those people’s faces was priceless!

  • TonyA_says

    Sears is definitely not local. They have local showrooms but they operate much more like a mail order company with an outsourced support center.

  • llandyw

    If I am calling a company about something technical, such as the cable company, one of the first things I tell them when they start scripting is that I am a computer engineer. I had Microsoft once in a foreign country. When I could barely understand them and they couldn’t understand the problem I had for them, I specifically asked to be transferred to a call center in the US. Well, they couldn’t transfer me, but they did give me a number. Issue was resolved in less than 5 minutes after I called the US number.

  • Lindabator

    HAHA! Had a Bobby form OOMAHA! (His pronunciation), so when I asked the capital of OOMAHA – click – he hung up – never laughed so hard in my life! (And yes, I DO know Omaha is a town in YOUR neck of the woods!) :)

  • Miami510

    There is lots of good advice in this piece. I have one item to add:

    When speaking with the first “script reading agent,” be sure, early on in the conversation, to ask their name. Almost always they give their first name. I ask them to spell it and then ask for their last name or their company identification number. It’s important to ask this early on, because if the call or the subject becomes confrontational and you ask for their direct supervisor, many times they will just hang up… unless you have their name and number. I’ve never had the experience of being disconnected once I had their information.

    When asking to speak to their direct supervisor, do it by including their name in the request: “Mary, I’d now like to speak to your….”

    A friend suggested that one should ask to speak to a native English speaker and the call will be directed back to the US… and probably a supervisor. I have no experience with this.

  • emanon256

    Every one knows the capital of Omaha is ‘O’ :)

    That’s a good one, ask them the capital of the city. Though, sadly, many Americans might get the capital of Nebraska wrong as well. I saw on a survey that most Americans believed it was Omaha and not Lincoln.

  • Cybrsk8r

    I would ask “Jimmy” where he’s from. When says “Texas”, probably because it’s the name of one of the few US States he knows, I would say,”Really, I grew up in Texas. Are you from Denver or Pheonix?”

  • Rebecca

    And on top of that, the agents are fired if they deviate from the script. I was a call center supervisor, and I can tell you that those overseas are fired at the drop of a hat if they don’t read the script verbatim.

  • Rebecca

    If they refuse, ask for the “retention” department, threaten to cancel if need be. I have found that this dept (at pretty much any large company) has broad power to fix issues without their supervisor. If they won’t transfer you, hang up, call back and ask the first person you speak to for the retention dept without giving them any info.

  • Rebecca

    Also, choosing the Spanish option always gets you a US rep. Just speak English when they answer in Spanish and they will be able to help you.

  • emanon256

    Unfortunate, for customer support sues with non-subscription products, they typically dont’ have a retention department. When I call for warranty support, help desk, support with a product I own, airline customer service etc. They really could care less as there is nothing to cancel.

    the next time I call Comcast or AT&T I will ask for retention.

  • Pegtoo

    My story: My cell phone rang one day, and a woman with a heavy accent said she was calling from the “a loan” company. I interrupted her and said I wasn’t interested, to not call my cell again and hung up. Phone rang again seconds later…same voice pleading with me not to hang up, she was calling from the “a loan” company, that the “a loan” was going off at my home. Yep, she was mis-pronouncing the word ALARM!!!! After finding out all was well at home, I called our alarm company to tell them what happened. They insisted they did not outsource, and didn’t believe what happened. We switched companies.

  • fshaff

    Of course, look who owns them – Kmart!!

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Most Nebraskans east of Lincoln think the same thing. :)

  • kay

    About 6 or 7 years ago, we bought a new stove. Delivered, installed, working well until the night it would only blink “E”. Called the manufacturer’s helpline after finding nothing about “E” in the manual and got someone with a heavy southern accent, who apparently flipped through the manual (you could hear pages turned and snatches of him reading out loud to himself. ) After instructing me to move the 400 lb stove and unplug it “to see if that heps [sic]” (I told him I’d done that when I turned off the circuit breaker; when I reapplied power 5 minutes later, it returned to the “E”. Finally, he asked if I could read, because maybe that wasn’t an E at all.

  • Travelnut

    I met someone who worked for Dell. He told me how they told their Indian reps to choose an American name. One day, just to mess with them, he told them the most popular boys name in the US was Juan. I still laugh thinking about the poor phone rep trying to convince callers his name was Juan.

  • frostysnowman

    So true! I had an issue with ADT that I thought was dealt with horribly by their CSR and did the same thing – wrote a negative comment on their Facebook page because I was so angry about how I felt I had been treated. Literally 10 minutes later I had a private FB message from them asking for my phone number. A person from their “special” customer service department called right away and helped get my problem resolved in a much more acceptable manner.

  • Steve’s Mom

    So TRUE!! I worked for that company (or one that did that, too!) Also worked for another credit card company that ignored complaints of wrong charges if they were under a certain amount.

  • steve’s Mom

    If time is not an issue, and I am not already dissatisfied with the level of ‘service’, I usually ask the male with the Indian accent if he likes working the night shift over there, and 9 times out of ten I get an honest answer. I ask the female if she is married and, if so, did she get a lot of gold? This often leads to an interesting conversation about Indian customs, etc.

  • Cat

    Have tried to ask for someone in the US and just get a list of excuses. We can’t transfer, there are no call centers in US, advised to keep calling until I reach someone who I can understand. Good luck with that!

  • Cat

    This also works when there is a long wait time for an agent. It pays not to speak english!

  • Cat

    If all they are going to do is read a script then they should just make the script available on line.

  • SoBeSparky

    Most manufacturers and service providers do have them on line. They are the FAQ they try to get customers to use. Problem is, most people drop right down to the bottom, “contact a personal representative,” without reading the FAQ or using the search function provided for the particular situation. Many call-in lines first suggest by recording that you go to the web site and use that first for quicker and more thorough explanations, then they put you on hold for a representative.