I worked at McDonalds when I was a kid. I was 14 and there was this part of the job I couldn’t really take seriously: smiling for customers. It always seemed fake or phony if I smiled because the truth is, not very many people inspire me to smile. I do have friends who smile easily and I love them for it, but in my case, it’s not my natural disposition. But I thought I would try out an experiment, with not a lot of controls in place. For one day I would smile at customers as big as possible. It said on the menu, after all, Smiles – Free.
So my first customer of the day comes in and without hesitation I smile huge for him. He was in his forties. And the reaction was not what I expected. The big smile was too authentic, and it worked. Wow, he said, with sexual undertones: I want more of those free smiles! And he was creepy. He thought I was *really* smiling for him! Experiment aborted after the first customer and I went back to giving them my half-baked fake smile, saving my real smiles for my real friends. Turns out that fakes smiles might be best for business anyway.
According to a new study at the University of Haifa when serving staff display a high intensity emotions (like my big smiles!) it is perceived as inauthentic and is liable to impair the customers’ satisfaction with the product and its use. “Expressing emotions such as happiness or sadness isn’t enough. It’s important to pay attention to the magnitude in which the emotion is expressed by service staff,” explains Dr. Arik Cheshin of the University of Haifa, one of the authors of the study.
Previous studies have found that the expression of emotion by service staff has a positive impact on customers, and some businesses even require their staff to serve customers “with a smile.” The new study, published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, was undertaken by researchers Dr. Cheshin of the Department of Human Services at the University of Haifa, Dr. Adi Amit of the Open University of Israel, and Prof. Gerben van Kleef of the University of Amsterdam, aimed to examine whether intensity of emotion displays carries social information and impact above and beyond the positivity or negativity of the emotion.
To this end, they undertook a series of experiments involving a total of 1,118 participants examining customers’ reactions to the emotions shown by service staff. The scenarios presented in the experiments included a customer looking for a product. In some cases no choice was available and there was only one option, while in others the specific product was not in stock and the customer was offered another product instead.
The service was given in various formats: in person, by telephone, and by email. In order to examine the impact of the strength of the emotion, an emotional expression of happiness or sadness was added to the service at either a low or a high level of intensity.
The findings show that the expression of an emotion – happiness or sadness – at a high level impaired the credibility of the service staff, satisfaction with the product, and even the use of the product. It also emerged that this trend applies regardless of the manner in which the service was provided – face to face, voice only, or writing.
In their final experiment, a field experiment, the researchers sought to examine whether the strength of emotion influences the use of the product. The participants were promised a DVD movie matched to their personality and preferred genre. A week after rating 10 different movie genres and a personality test, the participants received an announcement of the chosen movie together with an email message from the service provider which included happiness or sadness at varying levels.
Unbeknown to the participants all received the same movie – a Western, which was not a top pick for any of the participants. Once again, the same reactions were seen in terms of credibility and satisfaction with the service and the movie when the participants were exposed to a high level of emotional expression. Use of the product was also impaired: fewer participants who experienced service with a high level of emotional expression viewed the DVD movie they received by comparison to those who experienced service with a low level of emotional expression.
“It isn’t enough simply to ask or demand that service staff smile at customers or express positive emotions. It is important to emphasize the strength of the emotion display and to make sure that it is appropriate to the situation. Expressing a high level of emotion also impacts the evaluation of the service, the product, and its use. An identical product was perceived and used differently solely because of the strength of emotion displayed by the service staff,” Dr. Cheshin concluded.
Back to regular fake smiles people.