Authenticity, it’s Your Call.



We may not know what's real today, but we surely know how to spot a fake – the result of a mediated, manipulated, and focus-group-tested effort. 

Take for example customer conversations. So much work goes into cramming all sorts of meaning into scripts, that at the time of delivery they sounds hollow and insincere, if not a little robotic. If you watched Bicentennial Man#, you may be inclined to believe that robots want to have more heart.

You pick up the phone to call a company's customer service line, already regretting having done so and steeling yourself for the obligatory phone system purgatory. Then you get to a live person and fast forward through the litany of salutes. It is not the customer rep's fault, really. And it's not the script's fault, either. It was an attempt at presenting a uniform brand experience.

After being subjected to this treatment indiscriminately from many companies that implement “best practices” or work hard at benchmarking their services, we literally cannot hear the words anymore. Thus, we cannot distinguish one company from the other.

There are a few problems with this kind of script

  • It's not infused with the specific company's personality.

The 404 messages of many younger brands are good example of a personality – remember the error message on Technorati? At least they were entertaining. How about the Twitter whale?

The most on-brand 404 page I found online is Pixar's. The use sadness from their hit movie ‘Inside Out’ to explain the error message. 

Emailcenter has since added a redirect to save their jobs, but their 404 page used to ask you to choose which one of their developers should be fired for the mistake. Whoever you picked, you’d see a funny group picture and relevant copy. 

  • There's no subtext.

No room behind the actual words for the “actor,” the person using it, to interpret the script. How you say “we're sorry about that,” or “let me pull up your record,” even how you ask for someone's zip code, could be less stilted, warmer. It's about timing and how you say something.

  • It's been watered down in an effort to make sure that three separate departments, and legal, are all satisfied with the exact words.

No punch line anymore.

Am I saying you should improvise? Well, let's see what that means. Improvisation, in the performing arts is a very spontaneous performance without specific or scripted preparation. In engineering this means to solve a problem with the tools and materials immediately at hand – think Apollo 13.

Improvisation may be a stop gap, but it does have rules

Tina Fey's Bossypants  outlines four principles: 

1. The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created.

Acknowledge the person. We're programming chat bots to do it because it's important.

2. The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own.

We go a step further with the person calling, taking the initiative.

3. The next rule is MAKE STATEMENTS. This is a positive way of saying “Don’t ask questions all the time.” […] In other words: Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.

It's ok to say we don't know, then to follow up.

4. THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike.

Now that would be engaging. We're not perfect, but we're more likely to connect with someone and be forgiven when our response is sincere. A non-apology apology feels like the person calling doesn't matter.

To be authentic doesn't mean we're always shooting form the hip. In fact, we're the most spontaneous when we know what we're talking about.

A company that takes the time to communicate its history, culture, practices, and go-to-market strategies simply, is a business that learns to know itself. A business that learns what happy customers like, studies the verbatims on complaints and issues, can learn to spot how to fill the gap. 

Many organizations feel that scale holds them to pre-packaged marketing.

  • It makes no room for the customer. It's all been arranged in the script.
  • It leaves no room for the company or call center representative.

Authenticity starts with clarity about who you are, what you stand for, and how you are different. Know thyself said the inscription on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.

When we become intimately familiar with who we are, what we're about, what we do and for whom (we don't go wrong in thinking we're addressing people just like us at a minimum) we don't need a script anymore. Principles, guidelines, and the right tools to pull up information suffice.

But all the tools won't make up for listening. We cannot fake listening – we either do, or we don't. Listening goes to the heart of realness, it's very much part of the conversation. The part that moves individuals towards connection.

[image courtesy of Immanuel Giel: Greek γνῶθι σεαυτόν or gnothi seauton]