Written by Ian Landsman on Aug 23, 2016 in

Act It Out: Customer Service Training Ideas Inspired by Acting Class

When you serve customers for a living, you’re always on. The phone rings, a new email alert pops up and in your mind the director is calling, “Action!” However, you know it’s not time to fake a smile. Customers can always tell when someone is being insincere. Ask any good actor, and they’ll tell you the core of a great performance is truth.

It so happens that customer service and acting have a lot in common. There’s a level of focus, discipline and polish that actors rely on, and customer service representatives would do well to, also.

Today, we invite you to check out some acting practices and standards that can help you build a powerful and highly effective customer service team.

First, Speak Truthfully and Build Trust

Achieving honesty is the highest goal of any actor. We’ve talked in the past about the importance of empathy and authenticity in providing excellent customer service. For actors, an honest performance means one that is built on understanding and vulnerability.

Method acting is one of the most famous techniques in and out of the dramatic arts. As a school of thought, it encourages actors to develop a mental and emotional connection with a character that results in a more “honest” performance. Actors like Johnny Depp, Robert De Niro and even Marilyn Monroe have been noted as practitioners of this style.

Building emotional associations between our own experiences and those of a character - or customer! - means opening up to things that may be uncomfortable, even painful, in order to create a meaningful connection.

This process helps make an actor more “believable.” It can also make a customer service representative more empathetic as a solution provider, as they embrace a better understanding of customers’ perspectives, wants and frustrations.

Living In The Moment

Another staple of many actors’ training programs is the Meisner technique, which focuses on living in the moment. As an actor at work, you "only exist in that moment" and focus on "living truthfully under imaginary circumstances."

Sure, it sounds like a college kid’s justification for spending too much on a pair of shoes during a weekend trip to Montreal. But in acting training, this means spending hours, days and months even engaging in very basic back and forth dialogues designed to encourage focus to the exclusion of all else on this moment, right here and now.

Using a repetition exercise can train actors to become highly attuned to the vocal and physical nuances of their scene partner and respond spontaneously and appropriately based on those verbal and nonverbal cues.

Of course, you don’t quite have the time to pair off your representatives so they can say “your shirt is blue” to one another for a month. However, you can help train your customer service team to learn on how to focus on this moment, this customer, this call, while not thinking about dinner tonight or lunch in a half an hour, or even the customer that got mad at them on a call earlier that day.

Repetitive exercises also help staff members become more attentive to the signals of individual customers and allow them to practice building rapport and responding in a way that best fits the situation.

Active Listening

Another skill honed by the Meisner technique, method acting and essentially every acting system is that of active listening.

No one can live in the moment or give an honest performance without really, truly listening to what is going on around them.

In order for an actor to engage in dialogue in a new and honest way regardless of how many times they’ve heard or said that same line, they must be listening. Again, they must separate all other thoughts and focus on only what is being said in that precise moment.

It’s not hard to imagine how that translates to a better experience for a customer. We’ve all been cashed out by a cashier who is more interested in talking to their co-worker. We’ve all had that sinking feeling that the representative on the other end of the line is merely going through the motions.

Make sure your customer support team is listening. Your customers will know whether they are or not.

The Law of Improv

Let’s explore improvisation. As a performer, there is little else that creates a greater sense of fear or exhilaration. There is no script, no director and no net. There are simply the actors and their ability to think on their feet. Is there any skill more requisite for an exceptional customer service professional?

In a typical improv scenario, an actor must take the suggestion they are given and develop a scene based on only that information. The successful navigation of improv situations is based on a single fundamental law: Accept and amplify.

Secondly? To never negate a statement or reject an offer.

One of the most basic exercises in improv training is a game known as “Yes, and.” In this activity an actor must take whatever they are given by responding “Yes and,” adding more information to the scenario, which is then accepted and expanded.

For example, one actor says “I have a toothache.”

Their partner responds by saying “Yes, and that’s what you get for eating a pencil.”

To which the original actor might respond, “Yes, and I also swallowed a stapler.”

This exchange can go back and forth indefinitely, telling a detailed, albeit odd, story as long as both parties can continue to successfully accept and amplify.

These “games” are entertaining and can engage a group of any skill level.

Used in a customer service training program, they serve to “free” participants from inhibitions and self consciousness. They encourage all of the skills above: honesty, being in the moment and listening.

How to Integrate These Techniques in Customer Service Training (Beyond Role Play!)

The exercises that come out of acting class aren't just good for aspiring performers. Customer service training is an opportunity to help your team engage in acting “games” to become better equipped to perform their roles. For help integrate acting skills and exercises into a training program, there are numerous resources, including those listed below:

Why These Acting Games?

Role playing has been a long-used method of training any sort of employee who will face unpredictable circumstances when interacting with customers. Typically, these activities involve playing out sample scenarios and receiving feedback based on their choices when faced with a conflict.

But this process, without any foundation, is not as effective as it could be when used in conjunction with other exercises. Individuals uncomfortable with any sort of performance will never excel at these routines if they are unable to shake off their own self awareness.

When you incorporate non-literal acting exercises, you will develop an employee’s internal skill set. Many role playing situations simply test someone’s ability to memorize an appropriate response and apply it under a made up scenario. Using real acting techniques, you have the potential to create a customer service professional with a much broader range and deeper agility, quite necessary faced with unexpected events.

Key Habits of Good Actors

In addition to acting techniques, a disciplined actor develops other professional habits that help them excel. Customer service representatives should consider:

Being Prepared - If you don’t know your lines, don’t have your props or haven’t done your homework, you’re not ready to rehearse or perform. If you don’t know the ins and out of a new product or don’t have the coffee you know you need to get through the morning, you’re not going to be prepared to do your best work.

Warming Up - A good actor can’t walk in cold off the street and give an award winning performance. We tend to think of actors contorting their bodies while repeating “Unique New York” to prepare physically and vocally. Yes, that happens, but for a good purpose.

Those strange rituals help allow for a greater range of motion and clearer diction. While saying “red leather, yellow leather” over and over may not be necessary to start a day responding to customer calls, there should be a moment of transition between life and work. Employees should have a process that prepares them physically, vocally and mentally to work. Check emails first. Follow-up on existing concerns before addressing new ones. Review system changes. Then get ready for the new audience waiting.

Checking Baggage - Every actor knows what it means to check his or her baggage at the door. No one will do good work when distracted by problems at home, conflicts with coworkers or other personal or professional issues. The ability to “shut off” your outside life when you walk into a space is something all actors work on throughout their careers, and it’s a good habit for every employee to learn.

Trusting the Team - Every artistic discipline, from dance to film to puppetry requires a basic level of trust between actors and crew. They must all fully trust one another to work together to make art.

Trust is just as imperative between members of a customer service team - and members of the company, as a whole. This means more than trust falls on a weekend corporate training. It means trusting the product, trusting the solutions devised by colleagues, and trusting the organization’s direction.

Not everyone was born to be an actor, even if most of us dream of being at least a little famous.

While the X factor that makes someone a legend may not be teachable, the skills that turn natural born talent into earned excellence certainly can. The techniques an actor uses to become a master at their craft are a natural fit for elevating your customer service team to the next level. Simply adding some basic principles of acting into your training program can turn your team from smart and dedicated to truly delightful.

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About the author

Ian Landsman of UserScape

Ian is the founder of HelpSpot and also podcasts at Bootstrapped.fm.

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