Service with a Very Big Smile

The bigger the employee’s smile, the happier the customer. That’s the conclusion of new research from Bowling Green State and Penn State universities.

With the help of trained observers, Patricia Barger and Alicia Grandey followed 173 encounters between customers and employees in coffee shops, scoring the employees’ “smile strength” on a scale from “absent” to “maximal” (which features exposed teeth) at various points during the transaction. The researchers then intercepted the customers and asked them about their service experience. Indeed, the bigger the employee’s smile, the more likely customers were to view that person as competent and the encounter—averaging just two minutes—as satisfying.

But requiring employees to smile can backfire, these and other researchers warn. Studies have shown that forcing workers to act friendly when they don’t feel friendly can lead to job burnout and depression. Forced smiles also tend to look phony, and ample research suggests that customers know, and don’t appreciate, a fake when they see one.

If managers want employees to deliver service with a smile, they can do better than simply mandate it. They could create an environment that encourages genuine smiles and, Barger and Grandey suggest, consider including “a measure of positive emotional expressivity in their employee selection system”—which, loosely translated, means “hire happy people.”

Harvard Business Review


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