Serving customers? Smile – but not too much

The findings show that the expression of an emotion – happiness or sadness – at a high level impaired the credibility of the service staff.

A waiter serves people at a restaurant (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
A waiter serves people at a restaurant
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
“Smile, and the world smiles with you,” goes the old song, but if you smile too broadly and serve customers, they may regard you as less trustworthy.
So say researchers at the University of Haifa, the Open University and the University of Amsterdam, who found that service staff who express emotions in high intensity – positive or negative – are perceived as less trustworthy and customers are less satisfied with the staff and even less likely to use the product.
“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,” explained University of Haifa researcher Dr. Arik Cheshin, one of the study authors.
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 carried out by Cheshin of the department of human services, Dr. Adi Amit of the Open University and Prof. Gerben van Kleef of the University of Amsterdam.
They wanted to determine whether the intensity of emotion displays carries social information and impact above and beyond the positivity or negativity of the emotion.
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; 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 phone and by email. 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, via voice only or in writing.
In their final experiment – a field experiment – the researchers wanted to know if 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 that included happiness or sadness at varying levels.
The participants did not know that all of them got 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, in 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,” Cheshin said.