Training June 2015

Smile power in customer service

You are faced with grumpy, angry looking, unfriendly customer-facing staff—Welcome to America! Dale Carnegie’s Human Relation’s Principle Number Five is “smile”. You would never guess that this idea—to smile when you meet people, especially when in a customer-facing role—was first published in 1936 in How to Win Friends and Influence People.

I was in the US attending our owner’s meeting in Chicago, and also spent time in New York and Washington DC, so my observations are not influenced by one location.

The idea of smiling when you answer the phone, hasn’t reached some of the staff working in major hotels yet. When I called, staff with very angry voices would pick up the phone and repeat the name of the hotel. I asked one lady if she was angry.

That threw her and she said no, so I asked her why she answered the phone with such an abrupt, unfriendly, angry voice. Her self-awareness factor was trending into negative numbers, as she was baffled by my line of questioning.

Maybe I have been in Japan too long, but I don’t think that is the reason behind my sensitivity.

When buying food, checking in for a flight, or entering an airport lounge, unsmiling, unfriendly staff assault your senses. There is no smiling—not even those fake jobs. To top it off, they then produce a section from their manual and say: “Have a nice day/flight/whatever”. The incongruity of greeting you with an “I don’t care” attitude and their final words has obviously not yet been explored.

Giving instructions to the taxi driver or the serving staff and being greeted with total silence is a bit disconcerting. Do they know where I want to go or what I want; are we clear about what needs to happen next? Why is there no acknowledgement of what you want?

Excuses such as, “it’s America” or “it’s New York” or “it’s Chicago” or “it’s the minimum wage syndrome” don’t cut it. These abysmal service interactions are a simple failure of leadership. The firms employing these staff have poor leadership: they are not properly training their people who are then destroying their brand.

While there are obvious conceptual barriers about what is important, the message is pretty clear—you, the customer, are just not important. This fundamental idea comes from the leadership.

What a fantastic opportunity for firms to win in the marketplace. The cost of a genuine smile is obviously too expensive for these failing businesses to implement. Imagine though, that properly led staff were being trained on just one thing—smile when you meet the customer. Behind that idea is a whole gamut of attitudes and concepts about the task at hand.

These untrained, unskilled people are totally focused on processes: check in the passenger; issue boarding passes; hand over the hotdog; and head to the road system to get to the destination. No! No! No! The experience is the key, not the process.

Teaching our teams to smile at the first interaction with the customer sets up a chemical reaction that will create the right momentum to create an experience that adds to the value of the brand and to the revenues of the organisation.

To do this we need to train properly our leaders, to make sure their staff understand it. The lack of congruency is costing firms money. The missed opportunities for up-selling and cross-selling are frankly scary, pathetic and unnecessary.

So, do an audit of your own shop. Call your own organisation at different times of the day, especially around lunchtime, when the chances are high of someone who doesn’t normally pick up the phone now doing so and becoming your “brand ambassador”.

Listen to how your staff answer the phone. Do they say the name of the organisation and their own name with a smile that comes through in their voice? Observe the customer-facing interactions and see if a genuine smile is there or not.

Can you train your staff to smile? It is not impossible, but let’s get the right people on the right bus and in the right seat, so that the first impression of the customer is a big happy smile because it is the staff’s natural reaction.

If that is not possible, then work on getting the staff’s minds around the idea that a smile is shorthand for what the brand represents and what the organisation stands for, and explain where their role fits into the whole picture.

I am often critical of the polite but robotic service we get in Japan, yet it beats the genuine disinterest of a lot of service staff I met in America. As company leaders, I don’t think we should be satisfied with anything less than excellent smiles as the first point of contact. Yes, it requires effort, leadership and training, but the majority of our competitors are doing a pretty miserable job, so let’s differentiate ourselves and win.

If we can get a smile going at the outset, a lot of good things will follow. Principle Number Five “smile” can be a catalyst for success. If we can’t manage this much, then we had better start asking some pretty harsh questions of ourselves.