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Making Scripts Understandable Is as Easy as A-E-I-O-U

The caller is onboard. The customer service representative (CSR) is onboard. And it's your job to roll out a script that delivers answers in plain language.

The beginning is the easy part: "Hello and thank you for calling XYZ Company! My name is Jane Smith. How can I help you today?"

When your customer service representative greets the caller in a bright, chipper tone, the caller believes that they have had the good fortune to be connected to someone who can answer their question and solve their problem.

Customer service script

Your CSRs may be well trained to listen carefully, ask good questions, and be responsive. However, they also need the right tools to do their job well. They need scripts that are clear and direct, which, as any writer knows, is not always easy to deliver.

You need to think like your customer, imagining that you know very little about the subject. And you need to use plain language-language that presents complex information in simple, easy-to-understand ways.

Here are five effective ways to ensure that your scripts follow best practices for maximum clarity and efficiency and follow plain language guidelines.

A--Acronyms and abbreviations. It's so tempting to abbreviate words. Abbreviating terms saves space and sometimes distills complicated strings of words into easy-to-remember acronyms. For example, who would say, "I'm going into the water with my self-contained underwater breathing apparatus"? No one. We'd all say, "I'm going scuba diving."

Most acronyms are far less helpful. The online source Acronym Finder lists more than 5 million abbreviations, which means that many strings of letters have multiple meanings. Take CPR, for example. While "cardiopulmonary resuscitation" springs first to mind for most people, a Legislative Assembly member in San Juan might associate it with the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and a morning radio host in Denver might think of Colorado Public Radio.

When you are deciding whether to use acronyms, follow these simple guidelines:

  1. If it's an insider term, don't use it. "CSR," for example, is call center jargon. Don't use it with your callers. Instead, choose an understandable term, such as "agent," "expert," or "representative."
  2. If you decide that an acronym is appropriate, first introduce the full term and then add, "also called [acronym]."
  3. Even though you've introduced it, don't assume your callers will remember the term. Reintroduce the acronym in long scripts.

E--Establish consistency. Your scripts, whether you have only a dozen or hundreds, need to be consistent in language and tone. To ensure consistency, create a style sheet or, if you are working on many scripts over a long period of time, a style guide, which you can expand over time.

Begin by deciding which dictionary you'll use as your guide. After you've chosen a dictionary, pick a base style guide, one that you can turn to for general questions. The two principal ones are the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook.

You are now ready to create your style sheet. You should write down all the special information that applies specifically to your company or your line of work. For example, if you are booking vacations, you might want to add an entry that says, "'International' versus 'foreign.' Use 'international' in scripting because 'foreign' can have negative connotations." You may add special treatments of names to this style sheet too. For example, do you say, "Our corporate offices are in Denver, Colorado," or do you say, "Our corporate offices are in Denver"? Note it on your style sheet. 

Once you've created that style sheet-which may well turn into a style guide-distribute copies to all the people who might need to refer to it and establish a process for updating it.

I--Identify your audience-and speak to them. For an older audience, you might first ask if they have access to the internet. For a younger audience, you can assume they know how to navigate websites. Beyond identifying your audience's demographics, identify their shared knowledge base. If your callers are all subscribers to your fantasy sports website, you can assume they are familiar with sports jargon and you therefore don't need to explain these terms in your scripts. If your CSRs are manning a tech support line, you can assume that many of your callers are unfamiliar with the finer points of technology; your scripts may tell CSRs to gauge the caller's tech knowledge as the call goes along and adjust their language accordingly.

O--Organize. Good organization means establishing a process for reviewing scripts and getting them out the door on time while ensuring that you don't skip steps, which can result in sloppy work. You should have a review, or editing, team to go over each script, and each script should be reviewed at least twice. If you don't have a team and are the lone editor, build time into the schedule, if possible, so that you can wait 24 hours between each review. The time between reviews will allow you to read it with fresh eyes, which will help you catch errors you might have missed the first time around.

When you establish a review process, make sure that you get buy-in from all the other groups involved. You want to make sure that everyone understands how much time you need to review materials and what they can expect from your review process.

U--Use plain language. The term "plain language" has been gaining traction since 2010, when President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act into law. As laws go, it is short and direct. It says that federal agencies should promote "clear Government communication that the public can understand and use." The act goes on to define "plain writing" as "clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject." While the law applies only to government documents, many businesses feel that it resonates with their work, and you can easily apply these concepts to your scripts.

According to the law, plain writing should help readers:

  • Find what they need.
  • Understand what they find.
  • Use what they find to meet their needs.

Beyond these simple concepts, there is another key element of plain language-one that applies to call center scripts. Use active, rather than passive, voice. Sometimes, writers think of active voice as present tense and passive voice as past tense, but the ideas aren't related.

With passive voice, the subject is being acted upon by the verb. With active voice, the subject of the sentence is doing the action.

Passive: The new hybrid rose is being sold by the greenhouse.

Active: The greenhouse sells the new hybrid rose.

Passive: The dog will be treated by the vet.

Active: The vet will treat the dog.

When you use active voice, you engage your reader and make your ideas easier to understand. When you use passive voice, your listener may ask, "Huh?" When you use active voice, they're apt to say, "Oh, I see!"

As you craft scripts for your call centers, keep these a-e-i-o-u tips in mind!