3 Rules of Improv for Amazing Customer Service

bees photographed by Ante Hamersmit

Customers can be rude. Demanding. Short-tempered. The post-pandemic world has created a new host of irritable people who are the bane of customer-facing employees. Emerging from the confines of the pandemic, these customers are like an angry swarm of bees on a mission to get their way, even if they have to sting a few people to do it.

Applying the rules of improv can help your team manage better and even turn a bad situation into a win.

This may sound like a nightmare. Improv: to be onstage without a script to guide you through interactions with the other actors. But even improv has rules that—when followed—equip the actor with everything needed for a satisfying and creative scene.

How does this work in customer service?

We’re not suggesting you ask your employees to make things up on the spot or to play a game with customers. Instead, take the fundamental rules of improv and apply them to your approach to training for outstanding customer service.

1. Say yes.
Sometimes this rule is stated as: Don’t deny. The point is, once someone makes a statement, no one else in the scene can deny it. It’s now real, and it exists. The others must say yes and play along with what the first actor has established.Laughing Matters Improvisational Comedy CompanyLaughing Matters Improvisational Comedy Company circa 2002.

In an improv scene, this could be an actor saying to another, “You’re a rabid muskrat!” So for the rest of the scene, he’s a rabid muskrat.

In the customer service situation, if the customer says, “This is broken!” or “Your technology doesn’t work!” or “My order isn’t right!” then, according to the rules of improv, that complaint or statement cannot be denied. This doesn’t mean that your team or your company is claiming responsibility or fault. It simply means the complaint is acknowledged, and the person has been heard. And often, this is the first step to calming down an irate customer.

2. Say “Yes and.”
“Yes and…” is perhaps the most well known rule of improv. This rule states that you must add to what the other actors have initiated.

If someone says you’re a rabid muskrat, then what next? You could add, “Yes, I’m a rabid muskrat who is late for a job interview to do singing telegrams,” as you froth at the mouth and begin the opening lines to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

In a customer service scenario, your team first listens to the initial complaint and gives the customer the chance to express their feelings. The representative affirms what he has heard and then adds context and offers potential paths to resolution. It’s important for the customer to have choices in how to proceed. Options put the power back in their hands—another way to disarm and assuage someone who is overly grouchy.

3. Make your partner look good.
Improv is not about trying to “out-funny” the others on stage with you. It’s about helping to solve the situation, playing out the circumstances with sincerity and helping others be successful.

The same is true for dealing with customers. How can your service team “make them look good?” To start, don’t make them look bad. Placing blame or admonishing is not conducive to a peaceful resolution.

Instead, your front line should thank them for being a customer and for the opportunity to rectify the current situation. If applicable, thank them for bringing an issue to light that could potentially be problematic for other customers. Solving one customer complaint now could head off many more future ones. You can truly be thankful for that.

Bonus tip: Play!
Improv is ultimately about embracing a sense of play, of working with others to develop a story together. It’s not about taking the lead, eliciting orders or making promises that can’t be kept. It’s collaborative and humble because it allows all parties concerned to make a contribution to the overall experience.

When your customers have an interaction with employees where they are heard and can participate in the resolution, they are more likely to be satisfied, to return and to tell others about the stellar treatment they received.

For more content about customer experience, check out Friction Leads to Frustration: 3 Simple Fixes to Improve Customer Experience.

If you need help creating culture of "Yes and" or training for your customer service department, contact Alex Reilly at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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