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3 Ways Improv Training Can Improve Customer Service

Taking a cue from the Russian theater director Konstantin Stanislavsky, Continuum’s Daniel Sobol and Toby Bottorf argue that frontline employees shouldn’t feel tied to a script.

As service designers, we know that frontline staff members are key to any brand experience. They are the ones who interact with customers, respond to customer needs, and ultimately deliver the service. So how can we enable them to play their role naturally and with confidence, to better relate to customers, and to perform at their best in unanticipated scenarios?

We believe one answer to that question leads to a snow-covered street in Russia, a few minutes from Red Square, where director Konstantin Stanislavsky helped found the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898. This theater—the site where Anton Chekhov premiered and developed his major plays—revolutionized Western drama, and in turn Western acting techniques and training. Stanislavsky believed that the magic of theater comes when an audience feels as if the characters on the stage are living the story in front of their eyes, not just reciting a memorized script. In order to make that happen, Stanislavsky used techniques of improvisation in rehearsal to create performances so real they felt improvised themselves.

The best services are also the ones that feel improvised. Customers respond poorly to those that feel robotic, automatic, or overly rehearsed. They want to be treated like a person and know that their situation is being handled based on their specific needs in the moment. By looking at the Moscow Art Theatre’s approach to performance and acting training, we can learn several valuable lessons about how to design better services for our customers.

1. Loosen the script

On the page, Chekhov’s plays seem underwritten. Simply reading the scripts, characters can seem preoccupied and trivial, and many readers find the plot, frankly, quite dull. But it’s what Chekhov purposefully leaves out that is often the most compelling part. He gives actors and directors a great deal of space to work in by creating a frame they can explore. The best script for a service should be similarly underwritten, in order to leave space for action and improvisation by managers and service agents. Take for example, American Express. Interviewed in Fortune magazine, American Express EVP of customer service Jim Bush explained the company’s philosophy: "We converted from a robotic, scripted environment to a conversational environment that brings the personality to life and brings one-to-one connections, which is what ultimately builds and sustains relationships."

2. Train to improvise

If we are to deliver good services, we need to permit our staff to be comfortable enough to react and respond in the moment. To help actors prepare for reacting honestly on stage, Stanislavsky’s training method involves improvisational etudes, or short scenarios. These allow actors to explore what is beneath and around what the script gives them in order to better understand their characters and react more honestly to the events of the play. Companies can similarly use role-playing in training to give staff a scenario in which to improvise, not a script to perform. How will the front desk staff react to a frustrated guest demanding a free night because the air-conditioning was broken? How will the airline service agent respond to a frantic customer whose luggage has been lost and needs a new suit? Playing out scenarios—not scripts—equips staff to understand how to react honestly to any situation and develop strong relationships with guests.

3. Your role, your character, your brand

To go off script effectively, however, requires a clear understanding of the guardrails. In a Moscow Art Theatre etude, actors improvise within a clear set of constraints: their role, their environment, and the established world of the play. Service agents must also have the right guardrails within which to "play." The company brand provides these guardrails. Understanding the personality of the brand helps create the world within which the service agent can improvise. When designing an interactive product or system, we often do an exercise in which we ask, "If this product/service were a person, what would their personality traits be?" to help our clients articulate the personality of the brand. On a recent project for a technology-focused service, we found that, while our client had initially perceived their brand’s personality as "powerful," what consumers really wanted was something that was "friendly." We were able to redesign the service experience, including product design and digital user interface, to achieve a warmer, more accessible brand personality.

If having service agents who are empowered to go off script will help create the best customer experiences—and thus help companies win—then we need to train our staff to do so. Just as Stanislavsky trained his actors by improvising in the rehearsal studio, we should train our staff to react honestly to unanticipated situations. Furthermore, we need to support our service agents with consistent brand touchpoints that help them get into character and perform their roles. Like theater, service design is about connection and relationships, and it is created and delivered in the moment as it unfolds. Because service design seeks to enact a particular story, it should follow Aristotle’s enduring prescription for good drama: to be inevitable and yet surprising. These are also the qualities of good design.


Written by Daniel Sobol and Toby Bottorf

[Images: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]

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  • Travis Thomas

    From the first intro improv class I took almost 14 years ago - I knew improv would also work in the workplace. It does. They are actually the same principles that work in every relationship in our life. I have had the honor to perform, teach, direct - as well as share these ideas in the corporate setting. Not to make a shameless plug - but I work for Improv Asylum - and we have been bringing improv into the workplace for over 15 years. It really is transformational.

  • Tom Wynne-Morgan

    @hereateingine:twitter we would call this a behavioural framework. Empowering call service agents has to go beyond 'permissions' and actually provide tools. The actor example is a good one but also a bit of a red herring. Although actors might need room and encouragement to improvise, they do so off the back of years of training and experience that brings many other skills to the fore. The practical reality of many call centres is that staff are not so well versed or experienced and indeed may have huge cultural barriers to overcome. Its not a script, its a framework.

  • Shep Hyken

    Improv is fun.  When you mix it with customer service training, it is a winning combination.  Train your people well, make sure they know your product, and let them go off “script” and improvise a little bit with the customer.  It’s a win/win.  The customers will appreciate someone who feels engaged with them and not encumbered by a generic script – and the customer facing employees will appreciate the feeling of empowerment management has given them.

  • Henrik

    Refreshing approach.  Key for success is that the brand vision is clear and compelling and the brand values are lived by leaders.  A really cool concept in-line with story-telling that engages rather than "tells".

  • Kimberlee Morrison

    In addition to making customer experience more natural, this seems like a great way to empower customer facing employees. The keyword is empowerment. Scripts create lots of structure and limited autonomy. The trick is to define things enough so that there isn't complete uncertainty, but to empower customer facing employees to truly serve the customer.

  • Erik Michielsen

       I like the word "empowerment" here.  I was thinking "confidence building" however empowerment encompasses responsibility more and that is fundamental to finding success managing and motivating customer service teams using improv and storytelling training.  Thank you for sharing.