Scripted Talk

From "Welcome to McDonalds" to "Paper or plastic?" employers control the speech of service workers.


This article is from the September/October 2003 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

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This article is from the September/October 2003 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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Now one of the very first requirements for a man who is fit to handle pig iron as a regular occupation is that he shall be so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any other type… He is so stupid that the word "percentage" has no meaning to him, and he must consequently be trained by a man more intelligent than himself into the habit of working in accordance with the laws of this science before he can be successful.
—Frederick Winslow Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management (1911)

"Good evening and welcome to Cineplex Theater. Can I get you the super-combo popcorn-soft-drink special this evening?"

"Just a small drink," you say, your "hi, how are you" preempted by the question.

The worker at the snack counter takes your money, hands you a cup, and sends you off with a flat "thank you and enjoy the show."

The exchange may feel unnatural, even awkward. But scripted talk is more than just an annoying quirk of the modern service economy. It represents a deep form of managerial control—a regimentation of the labor process so total that it extends even to speech. Scripts are a fact of life for retail and service workers whose employers make use of a time-worn early-20th century managerial strategy: Taylorism.

In the 1910s and 1920s, a harsh new management system swept the nation's stockyards and factories. It called for managers to break jobs down into easily replicable, often mind-numbing, steps. The originator and foremost proponent of the system, Frederick W. Taylor, called his approach "scientific management," as it purported to apply scientific principles to the production process.

Taylor advocated strict separation between "thinking" and "doing." Managers and engineers in the central planning department were to do the "thinking"; workers, the "doing." He emptied labor of discretion and skill by reducing jobs to series of regimented tasks, eliminating all unnecessary body movements. A foreman with a stopwatch monitored and timed performance.

In the manufacturing sector, Taylorism was met with resistance from workers who saw their jobs deskilled and their control over the shop floor eroded. Over time, management developed more participatory practices like quality circles and suggestion systems that aim to elicit worker effort through overtures of collaboration. (And many manufacturing operations continue to rely primarily on Taylorist methods).

But in large swaths of the economy—especially in the service, retail, and clerical occupations that employ up to 42% of the U.S. workforce—old-fashioned Taylorism is expanding. And in service jobs that require workers to interact with customers, Taylorist control extends to the words workers utter. From "Welcome to McDonalds" to "Paper or plastic?" scripted talk is the rule for much "interactive service work." It's found in operations where volume sales drive profit, industry competition is intense, and where management takes a uniform, cookie-cutter approach to delivering a service—for example, in chain fast food joints, coffee houses, and restaurants, and in call centers and mass-retail stores.

Corporate scripting of speech expands the deskilling of workers to personal and social terrain. Not only are workers' bodily movements broken down into standardized subtasks, monitored intensively, and clocked, but their ability to converse with consumers and sometimes with each other is also subject to company control. The surveillance once performed by a foreman takes stealthy and invasive new forms in the service economy. Retail and restaurant companies use undercover "secret shoppers" to monitor workers' adherence to company scripts, while call centers—which employ 3% of the U.S. workforce—use sophisticated new technologies to record workers' every interaction with customers.

Managers argue that Taylorism is efficient. And to many time-harried consumers, it offers predictable service and reduces kinks and slowdowns produced by disorganization. But the human toll of this mode of control is steep. And it turns out that the benefits may not be as great as managers—or Taylor himself—have claimed. Indeed, the expansion of Taylorism into the service sector has replicated all the problems that it caused in mass production—profound worker alienation, physical exhaustion, and stress—which contribute to astronomical quit rates in Taylorized jobs. Moreover, research suggests that other more humane ways of organizing work can be equally effective.

Regimented Talk

At Taylorized service companies, work is organized much like in mass production assembly plants. "At McDonald's, almost every decision about how to do crew people's tasks has been made in advance by the corporation," says sociologist Robin Leidner in her book Fast Food, Fast Talk. Counter workers at McDonalds follow the Six Steps of Window Service: greet the customer, take the order, assemble the order, present the order, receive payment, thank the customer and ask for repeat business. The specific way they speak to customers may even be subject to rules. Leidner says McDonalds workers were instructed to say "May I help you, ma'am" rather than "Can I help someone?"

At Starbucks coffee shops, workers are supposed to greet the customer within 30 seconds from the time he or she enters the store; chat with the customer before taking the order; "call out" the coffee drink to the barista according to company specs (listing the temperature, the size, the modifiers, then the name of drink, in that order); then make eye contact and say "Have a nice day."

Clocked Talk

Telephone operators now typically handle 1,000 calls a day, and their job-cycle time (for example, the length of time it takes to answer a directory assistance request) averages just 20 seconds, according to Cornell University economist Rosemary Batt.

In interactive service work, whether at the drive-through window of a fast-food restaurant or a call-center computer station, speed is paramount. Employers time each step of the work procedure and drive workers to complete transactions at top speed so as to maximize volume and minimize labor costs. Scripting of speech is essential to this end.

Fast-food drive-through window workers must greet customers almost instantly—often within three seconds from the time the car reaches the menu board. Digital timers—visible to the worker, manager, and sometimes the customer—are wired to sensors buried underneath the drive-through lane. They measure how long it takes the worker to issue the greeting, take the order, and process the payment. When a worker falls behind the "targeted time goal" for a particular subtask, timers spur her on with chimes, sirens, or recorded messages. Sales of timers have doubled each year since 1994, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Former McDonald's CEO Jack Greenberg claimed that unit sales increase 1% for every six seconds saved at the drive-through. Because restaurant profits lie in shaving seconds off of "window time," store managers strive for drive-through times of 90 seconds (the industry average is 204 seconds).

Slick Talk

Many consumers have come to expect national fast-food corporations to require their workers to follow standardized scripts. A new generation of corporate scripts, though, has taken more insidious forms.

Chains like Starbucks write employee scripts to sound not merely polite, but chatty and sincere. "We're effectively required to make small talk," says James Boone*, who works the register at a Starbucks in southern Louisiana. "The company provides a list of questions it suggests we use to start the small talk, like 'How's that weather?' 'How's the family?' We're not supposed to talk about politics. And we have to close with 'Have a nice day.'" Should the customer actually be an undercover secret shopper sent by management to evaluate workers, Boone knows he'll get points docked for not saying "Have a nice day."

Mass retail stores, restaurants, and call centers also require their workers to participate in subtle or overt sales work. Besides simply ringing up purchases, taking a menu order, or answering consumer questions, workers are directed to hawk products, services, gimmicks, or expensive menu items in every service encounter. Because many workers find this task manipulative, awkward and alienating, employers enforce their compliance through covert surveillance.

Secret Shoppers and Digital Recording Technology

Fekkak Mamdouh, Director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY), a worker center, has a term for secret or mystery shoppers. "We call them 'busters.' Few of them will tell the boss that everything is perfect." Mamdouh knows of workers who were fired based on mystery shoppers' allegations.

Companies like Starbucks, the Olive Garden, and Marriott Hotels contract with mystery shopper companies to dispatch "service quality auditors"—secret shoppers—who, disguised as regular customers, monitor worker performance. Most national restaurant chains and hotels, and many mass retailers, now contract with mystery shopper companies. Virtually all of Taco Bell's 5,300 restaurants receive at least one visit from a clandestine auditor each month.

Rochelle Thomas* has worked for five years at the Seattle franchise of a national Italian restaurant chain. Headquarters makes sure that Thomas' store is "secret shopped" every two weeks. "When we take the dinner order, we have to suggestively sell five things: a drink, a side dish, a dessert, specials, and a special offer. You have to mention all five." Suggestive selling means naming specific high-price menu items. "We can't say, 'Would you like something to drink?' We have to say, 'Can I start you off with a glass of chianti?' If they have kids, we suggest sparkling water." At any one of her tables, an undercover monitor may be checking to make sure she complies with the suggestive selling requirements. "If you get a 'bad shopper' [meaning a bad report], the restaurant gives you terrible shifts for a week as punishment, and fewer tables. And they say if you get a couple of bad ones, they'll fire you."

The uncertainty makes secret shoppers an economical way for companies to control workers. Because workers don't know when they are actually being secret shopped, they modify their behavior as if they were always being watched.

At call centers, workers simultaneously talk on the telephone and navigate through computer screens. As in restaurants and chain stores, adherence to scripts is monitored and enforced. A 2002 survey of 735 North American call centers shows that 93% monitor customer service agent calls, an increase over the past two years, according to the book Call Center Operation: Design, Operation, and Maintenance. Forty percent monitor both workers' voices and their computer screens. And modern monitoring techniques go beyond supervisors' occasionally listening in for "quality assurance purposes." Sophisticated new digital tapping technologies ensure that every transaction is either heard or recorded. Furthermore, supervisors may convert a voice transaction to text, do word searches, and even e-mail the interaction transcript to higher-ups in the company for disciplinary action or "training opportunities." And they can alternate among multiple workers' screens to monitor an entire group. Secret monitoring modes enable supervisors to observe workers undetected. Finally, some "quality monitoring systems" claim to measure customer service representatives' stress levels and other emotional indices. Sales of call recording software reached $323 million last year, up $45 million since 2001, and the market analysis firm Datamonitor predicts sales will hit $538 million a year by 2007, according to the New York Times.

Call center workers are required to sell corporate products, services, and special offers—not just in "outbound" centers like telemarketing firms, but in "inbound" centers that answer toll-free calls as well. "There's an attempt to convert any service call into a sales call," says Batt. And workers know that if they deviate from the script, they may face disciplinary action.

The covert monitoring exacerbates stress and physical exhaustion. Rochelle Thomas explains, "We have to greet the table within 30 seconds of sit-down—to at least welcome the customer and say 'I'll be right with you.' We take their drink order within three minutes. After food hits the table, within three minutes we check back to make sure everything is OK. If I'm working a whole section, I have to push myself all night because the 30-second rule doesn't change, even if I'm juggling 10 tables. There's just no slack." It's not surprising that chain restaurants have a median worker turnover rate of 125% per year. In the call center industry, turnover rates are typically 35% to 50% per year, and far higher in some companies.

In the capitalist employment relationship, employers by definition have the right to direct the work of employees. But Taylorism takes the logic of managerial authority to an extreme. It applies intensive managerial control to the bodily movements and behavior of working people. In requiring workers to perform scripted talk, it produces alienation from one's own words and from one another. As Robin Leidner puts it, the "standardization of human interactions does encroach on social space not previously dominated by economic rationality. It shifts the meanings of such fundamental values as individuality and authenticity, raising troubling issues of identity for workers and customers."

Another Way is Possible

There are other, better, ways to organize service work. The Communication Workers of America has developed contract language on working procedures in call centers. The language prevents managers from using monitoring to discipline workers. Recordings are to be used for training purposes only. The union is also developing new formulas for sales quotas and call handling time.

Economist Rosemary Batt found that call center jobs organized as self-managed teams were far more productive in terms of sales volume and customer service than Taylorized call center jobs within the same company. The self-managed teams could decide how to conduct their work and interact with customers, and they set group goals and regulated themselves.

Finally, in the United States there are an estimated 1,000 to 5,000 worker cooperatives, or businesses owned by worker-members, and many more collectives—nonhierarchical organizations that are not cooperatives but do make decisions democratically. In worker cooperatives and collectives, authority resides in the workforce as a whole. For instance, at the Seward Café, a collectively owned and managed restaurant in Minneapolis, there is no manager. A set of job descriptions defines the basic work procedures but allows flexibility within those descriptions. Speech is not scripted. "As a consensus organization, we value a whole variety of different ways of communicating and interpreting what's happening. We value the fact that workers aren't censored," says Tom Pierson, a counter worker at the café. He says that speed is not compromised. But even if it were, the tradeoff would certainly be worth it.

Adria Scharf is co-editor of Dollars & Sense.

RESOURCES Rosemary Batt, "Work Organization, Technology, and Performance in Customer Service and Sales," Industrial and Labor Relations Review (July, 1999); Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, Monthly Review Press (1974); Robin Leidner, Fast Food, Fast Talk, California University Press (1993); George Ritzer, The McDonaldization of Society, Pine Forge Press (1996); Duane Sharp, Call Center Operation: Design, Operation, and Maintenance, Digital Press (2003); New York Times (July 28, 2003);; Wall Street Journal (May 18, 2000).