I was sitting in the terminal, waiting to board my flight to Seattle. Technically, I’d only been on vacation for about 30 minutes; I was trying not to think about work. But then, a voice came over the loudspeaker:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a full flight this morning. Space in the overhead compartments is likely to run out by the time we board zones two and greater…”

I looked at my boarding pass: Zone 3. Then, I looked down at my bag — one of the first that shows up if you Google “maximum legal carry-on.” My heart rate quickened a bit, and I considered my options. I could volunteer now, and have my bag checked — which they were offering at no extra charge — or I could board with it and risk not finding a space, slowing everything down, and feeling embarrassed and stressed out when I have to walk all the way back to the front of the plane and hand it to a flight attendant. I began considering the vast resourcing problems of the aviation industry and how I might fix them. (So, back at work. Not cute.) Meanwhile, no one was stepping up to the plate. A second friendly-warn came over the loudspeaker. I reluctantly pulled a few things I’d want for the trip out of the bag, approached the check-in desk, and handed it over. Very few others joined me in my martyrdom.

Later, as I walked the aisle of the plane toward my seat, I noticed many overhead compartments remained open with luxurious — cavernous, even! — empty space. More than enough room for my bag and ten others like it! The final blow? An empty one just above my seat.

“What happened here?” I wondered.

I sat in my seat and thought it over. Would all of these compartments have been full had the boarding crew not made their announcement and offered complimentary bag checks? By the looks of it, there still would have been extra space left over even if no one had responded. So I crossed that off my list of possibilities. And then I realized: it was a script!

Services are full of scripts. Most of the time, they make a lot of sense. Think about it: the more you find yourself saying something, the more it probably needs to be said, and the more you’ll feel the need to standardize how you say it. This keeps things predictable and brings stability to many situations. Sometimes, it does more than that. For example, next time you’re asked, “Would you like fries with that?” consider just how many more fries have been sold thanks to the psychological gambit that people would always rather say yes than no.

Other times, scripts can just be a subtle way to reinforce a brand. If you’ve ever been to Nando’s, you’ll know what I’m talking about. The first time I ate at a Nando’s was in 2005 in Malaysia. I was living there at the time and had never heard of the place. When I walked in, everyone on staff glanced my way and shouted, “Bom dia!” That’s “Good day” in Portuguese. That’s right, Portuguese. I left Malaysia a year later thinking that Nando’s was just this strange little third-culture artifact, until I saw one in London a few years later, and another one in Washington, DC, more recently. Turns out this place started in South Africa and has spread all over the world! But no matter where, the script is exactly the same: Bom dia! It’s a consistent affirmation of Nando’s Afro-Portuguese heritage and central to the brand.

Mulling all of this over as we taxied toward the runway, it became clear to me that sometimes scripts are a valuable asset to service design, but other times, they can be an Achilles’ heel. After all, what good is a script if it doesn’t benefit the service provider and the customer? The we’re-full-and-probably-won’t-have-room-for-your-bag line probably makes sense to many flights — probably so many that it’s more efficient to say every time, regardless of whether the slowly printing flight manifest (dot matrix printers! still!) indicates a person in every seat or not. As for my so-called full flight, I noticed at least a couple of seats that remained empty.

We took off. In my head, I’m still grumping over the bag business.

Once we reached cruising altitude, the captain greeted us over the intercom:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re expecting a smooth flight…”

Et-cetera. Another script. And yet, just a few moments later, turbulence! Oh, I mean, “rough air.” That’s the preferred term now; all the scripts have been updated. So, rough air. Lots of it. For most of the flight.

Scripts. Argh!

Of course, I understand where even these scripts come from. The bag script is a balm on the stress the crew feels when a flight is actually full, and its passengers are actually reluctant to check their baggage, and this game of chicken turns into an actual delay on the runway. That sort of stress is great enough that, psychologically, it’s better to assume that all flights will go this way and act accordingly. The everything’s-smooth monologue is a nod to the fact that not many passengers find the notion of spending hours trapped in a metal tube burning thousands of gallons of fuel in order to keep from plummeting 30,000 feet back to Earth comfortable. The captain means well with this script, however disingenuous it is. In both cases, the scripts follow the logic that it’s better to standardize a process and risk making it unpleasant than lose control to unpredictabilities and risk it being even more unpleasant. The air travel experience is rife with these sorts of wagers. I can’t imagine the difficulty of accurately predicting “smooth” or “rough” air, and I’m certainly not expecting that level of certainty from the captain’s greeting. But I can be spared the script. It clearly aligns with reality only every now and then. The rest of the time, it improperly sets expectations.

So here’s a question for you: What scripts have you written for your service? Which establish brand consistency? Which up-sell? And which set customer experience expectations?

Among that last set, another question: Do these scripts always remain in sync with the experience your customers have? Consider the ones that have been written to bring stability to tough situations. What damage might they do if they’re followed when things go according to plan?

And finally, consider this: If your service runs in to the sort of trouble that demands a stabilizing script that often, the misapplication of that script is the least of your problems. That’s certainly true of most airlines, not just the one that was sending me off to Seattle. With that thought, I realized I’d better close the book on this issue and get back to my main agenda: not thinking about such things! At least, not until I got back to my office. For now, I thought, I’m thinking westward…

Now that I am back, I’m on the lookout for ways that our service and reality may part ways. And, as always, I’m open to any feedback that comes my way.

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