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Scripting and Role Playing for Effective Management

With carefully scripted responses and role-playing exercises, staff members will spread the same message and avoid embarrassing miscommunications.

It is 6 p.m. on Monday night - a peak hour in your fitness center. All of the treadmills are being used by members who are pounding away the miles in search of cardio nirvana. At 6:35 p.m., a member approaches your fitness staff complaining that he signed up for a treadmill at 6:30 p.m., but the person using it won't budge. Despite all of the signs on the machine and throughout the facility indicating a 30-minute maximum time usage, the member on that treadmill refuses to stop. How will your staff member handle this? Will she approach the member with tact and diplomacy and solve the issue with a minimum of fuss? Or will she act in a more authoritarian fashion? Worse, what if the staffer shrugs her shoulders and says, "There's nothing much I can do. Why don't you do something else until another treadmill becomes available?"

Avoid mixed messages

Have you ever faced an irate member who asks for clarification on one of your facility's policies? You try your best to explain the policy, striving for a win/win outcome, only to be asked, "But why did your staff member tell me something completely different?" Effective scripting and role playing can help avoid these scenarios, as well as the all-too-common "ask the manager" responses still so prevalent from many staffers. The use of role playing to enhance well-rehearsed, scripted responses is no secret for people in the business of selling a product or service. The most successful people selling everything from cars and insurance policies to fitness memberships have attended numerous seminars on how to overcome objections, conduct tours and maximize client interaction.

A "one voice" policy

Today, in such a competitive market, there is no better way to encourage a "one voice" policy than through regular staff training, including script and role-playing exercises. Successful companies such as Disney have used this type of training for its performers for years. Jim Collins says in his book Built to Last that Disney staff members are "fiercely protective gatekeepers to the secrets of the Magic Kingdom." With carefully scripted responses and role-playing exercises, staff members will spread the same message and avoid embarrassing miscommunications. Effective role plays help make staff members more confident when dealing with day-to-day operations. Your management team will also be confident that staff members will speak with "one voice," with or without management present. A one voice policy is particularly important in organizations like World Bank, where its corporate fitness center is host to 4,700 members made up of 140 different nationalities. Arben Gjino, an Albanian national, has been a full-time fitness specialist at the World Bank Fitness Center for five years. Gjino explains a recent situation where scripting and role playing was used effectively: "We recently cut [locks on lockers for] illegal [use,] and went through a role play where we dealt with members who came looking for their items. We paid attention to the language, tone of voice and various levels of response in telling them the bad news. We paid special attention to our body language, and how we could search for a win/win situation, which is not always easy, especially with these unpleasant tasks. By doing this, we now have a script that helps us know what to say and, more importantly, how to say it."

Consistency is key

Carlos Carpio, a 15-year veteran of the fitness business, has seen role playing used in various other industries. "A staff memo listing answers to frequently asked questions is also a good reference, but it is far more effective when backed up by actual role plays of the question/answer responses," says Carpio. However, consistency is important for the script to work. "[Role playing] is very effective in keeping your team all on the same page," he says. "However, it needs to be done consistently, because, in a busy fitness center, things don't always go according to script." George Kassouf has managed various commercial fitness centers in the Washington, D.C., area throughout his 20-year career, and he agrees: "Consistency is the key. Although scripting can come across as a little superficial, it still gives staff confidence to answer members' questions about policy, etc., and not look foolish." For those worried about feeling hamstrung by a set list of stock responses, in Kassouf's experience, the effect is just the opposite. He saw role playing used extensively while working as a volunteer counselor with a hotline crisis center. "Although it was in a different context, the same rules apply," Kassouf says. "It helps you deal with people in a myriad of situations. Rather than confining you, it actually helps you think outside the box and see the various sides to an issue." The ultimate goal of role playing and scripting is better communication. You may not always achieve the ideal win/win situation, but members will certainly appreciate receiving definite answers to questions, rather than non-committal shoulder shrugs or buck-passing.
Collins, J., and J.I. Porras. Built to Last: Successful habits of visionary companies. HarperCollins: New York, N.Y., 2002.
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