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In the not so distant past, people would often call directory assistance operators. These operators would find a number for you. For an additional charge, they would dial it for you. In fact, this was a very commonly used system. Phone companies would have large rooms filled with such operators who worked very hard and very politely, communicating with a hostile and irrational public. 

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Customer: “I have to get the number of that bowling alley right near where the A&P used to be before they moved into that new shopping center.”

Operator: “Sir, you haven’t told me what town you’re in. Anyway…”

Customer: “What town?! Why I’m right here in Woburn where I’ve always been!” 

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There were so many operators that the phone companies wanted their processes to be efficient. Operators were trained to be friendly and genial but not chatty. The phone companies searched for better keyboards and better screen layouts to shave a second here or there off the average time it took to handle a call. 

There are some interesting stories in that attempt but that we will save for another article, but here I want to tell you what made the largest impact on the average time per call. Not a keyboard. Not a display. Not an AI system. 

It was simply changing the greeting. 

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Operators were saying something like: “New England Telephone. How can I help you?” 

After our intervention, operators instead said, “What city please?” It’s shorter and it’s takes less time to say. But the big change was not in how long the operator took to ask the question. The biggest savings was how this change in greeting impacted the customer’s behavior. 

When the operator begins with “How can I help you?” the customer, or at least some fraction of them, are put into a frame of mind of a conversation. They might respond thusly:

“Oh, well, you know my niece is getting married! Yeah! In just a month, and she still hasn’t shopped for a dress! Can you believe it? So, I need the number for that — if it were up to me, I would go traditional, but my niece? She’s — she’s going avant-garde so I need the number of that dress shop on Main Street here in Arlington.” 

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With the “What City Please?” greeting, the customer is put into a more businesslike frame of mind and answers more succinctly. They now understand their role as proving information in a joint problem solving task with the operator. A typical answer would now be:


“In Arlington, what listing?” 

“Dress shop on Main Street.”

The way in which a conversation begins signals what type of conversation it is to be. We know this intuitively. Suppose you walked up to an old friend and they begin with: “Name?” You would be taken aback. On the other hand, suppose you walk up to the line at the DMV and the clerk says, “Hey, have you seen that latest blog post by John Thomas on problem framing?” You would be equally perplexed! 

Conversation can be thought of partly as a kind of mutual problem solving exercise. And, before that problem solving even begins, one party or the other will tend to “frame” the conversation. That framing can be incredibly important. 

Even the very first words can cause someone to frame what kind of a conversation this is meant to be.

Words matter.

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