Reassessing the customer service smile

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Reassessing the customer service smile

By David Orgel - 05/21/2019
What happens when you ask for help in a store, and you don’t get a smile from the customer service associate? What if the store employee isn’t even friendly?

We often think that being positive and smiling is the ideal for these associates. However, there are unintended consequences when employees feel they have to remain positive even during difficult customer interactions.

Maybe you’re thinking this isn’t the most pressing topic in retail today, but it’s actually quite timely and important.

New research from Penn State and the University at Buffalo raises this issue and points to danger signs for employees. It found that “surface acting” by customer-facing employees who are suppressing emotions could increase their risks for heavier drinking after work.

The research delved into the drinking habits of employees who work with the public — from food service workers to nurses and teachers.

It turns out the greatest impact is on workers who have “one-time service encounters with customers,” compared to those involved in deeper, more regular relationships, like in healthcare or education.

In an official release about the results, Alicia Grandey, professor of psychology at Penn State, said employers may want to reconsider "service with a smile" policies.

All of this has big implications for retail, where customer service generally focuses on one-time encounters.

Years ago this issue would not have received a lot of attention. Unhappy associates would either deal with their frustrations, or get out of customer service.

But today everything is being re-examined, and there’s more of an emphasis on authenticity in workplace cultures, especially by younger shoppers and associates.

I’ll admit it, I like getting a customer service smile, but not when it seems false or forced.

I sought more insights from one of the study’s co-authors, Robert Melloy, who is senior people scientist at Culture Amp, a company that helps organizations to better manage employee experience and “turn company culture into a competitive advantage.”

He told me employees often feel less depleted if customer interactions “don’t have to involve killing them with kindness.”

However, even if employers are reticent to relax expectations about positive interactions, they can introduce workplace strategies that ease the burdens of associates.

“The more employers can structure the employees’ work in a more positive way, the more those employees will feel positive, and not have to fake emotions to customers,” Melloy said. “If they are excited to come to work, employees will feel more naturally positive.”

This might be accomplished, he said, through strategies like providing “brief recovery breaks,” and giving associates more autonomy over how they handle situations.

I believe these are important points, especially as retailers aim to make themselves into employers of choice.

Meanwhile, I’m willing to forgo a smile or “surface acting,” especially if I find associates are willing to listen to my questions, provide expertise about the store and its offerings, and show creativity in helping to solve my issues. That’s what will get me to come back the next time. For example, customers have access to smartphones and other devices, so why shouldn’t associates be empowered to use technology to help shoppers?

Here’s a closing perspective. I recently asked a highly perceptive retailer if he feels customer service employees need to be wearing regular smiles. His answer gave me pause because it seemed so completely on target. He said, “What’s important is that it’s our job to make the customer smile. If the customer leaves smiling, we’ve done our job.”

Now there’s a perspective that’s hard to disagree with.

David Orgel is an award-winning business journalist, industry expert and speaker. He currently is the principal of David Orgel Consulting, delivering strategic content and counsel to the food, retail and CPG industries. To read last month’s column, click here.