Sunday, October 7, 2012

Zombie Baristas, Or Why Good Service Can't Be Scripted

Service. Respect. Compassion. Engagement. Knowledge.

These are some of the intangibles that we want our employees to offer to each other and the customers they serve. Sometimes in our haste to give our employees good rules to follow, structure can become the enemy of those good intentions.

Case in point. There is a large bookstore near where I live, and they serve some of the most delightful coffee. Seattle is coffee heaven, so there is plenty to choose from, but I do like to get coffee and "visit the books" (I love the smell of books) a few times per week at this big-box bookstore.

Every time I order coffee from the pleasant employees behind the counter, the same thing happens. The kindness in their eyes fades to nothing, as they recite the following phrases with robotic consistency.

"Would you like to make that tall single a tall double for only 50 cents more?"


"Do you have a discount card to save you 10%?"

Now, I know what is happening here. These young customer service people have been mandated to say these things to every customer. And it turns these talented employees who make a damn fine cup of coffee into sullen zombie baristas. One minute they are smiling, the next minute they are empty eyed and may be contemplating feasting on my brains.

It's in their tone of voice! They hate saying these empty phrases as much as I hate hearing them! But they are good employees and so they obey, meanwhile their body language shifts, their eyes slip away from mine and to the floor, and their tone of voice takes on a subtle undercurrent of annoyance.

I get that the company wants to provide a uniform experience. I even get that they want to "up sell" some of their coffee products. But this scripting thing just doesn't work! Why? When we put the words in people's mouths, they become an expression of inauthenticity.

Why not instead set a goal of increasing certain results, and then offering a variety of techniques to help employees get there? Why not reward those results when they occur and make those rewards meaningful?

Do you think you can script good service? I frankly doubt it.

About the author:

Cheri Baker is the owner of Emergence Consulting, and the author of the Enlightened Manager Blog. Cheri helps mission-driven organizations prevent workplace dysfunction by ensuring that employees and leaders have the skills to be successful. Specializing in training, coaching, and facilitation, Cheri believes that workplace improvement should be enjoyable, meaningful, and sustainable. Check out her blog ( and free resources page ( for management articles, tools, and webinars.

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