Small Business: June 28, 2013: Cruising for a smile

June 28, 2013 

When I look out at the people and they look at me and they're smiling, then I know that I'm loved. That is the time when I have no worries, no problems. -- Etta James

I have just returned from a very enjoyable and relaxing cruise to Alaska. From watching glaciers calving to salmon fishing, the panoramas and activities were incredible, but the experience aboard the cruise ship was lacking in one major area: customer service.

Without exception, the crew (and it was a large crew) never really smiled at the guests. I really have no idea why this was, but in my opinion, they clearly needed to.

For example, there was one day on this cruise when we were at sea the entire day. I used this ship-bound day to observe the servers at the giant buffet. Their primary job was bringing drinks and clearing tables, but I never saw them smile at anyone. Sometimes a guest would smile at them and they would acknowledge the smile with a nod, but even then, no smile.

A smile is a valuable piece of the customer experience because it communicates things words cannot. A smile indicates warmth and kindness whereas a frown or empty expression puts a wall or barrier up between your company and your customers. At best, it sends the message that you just are not there for them.

For this reason, all of your employees should wear a smile at all times.

It is an integral part of the presentation they make to each and every customer or guest.

In my cruise ship example, you could just feel the negative energy the servers were creating, and it permeated the entire dining room. Clearly, on a cruise you want your staff happy so that the guests stay in a great frame of mind.

Walgreens clearly gets the importance of a smile in the service experience. On a visit to one of these major pharmacies, I noticed a sign in the employee lounge that said, "Your uniform is not complete unless you are wearing a smile!"

Many firms talk about the importance of smiling, but very few really make it a part of their culture. I think the reason for this is that management just forgets how great an impact this very simple act can have on the customer. Additionally, I think management often assumes their staff will just know they should smile so they do not emphasize it in their training. But quite frankly, over time, we learn not to smile from our peers and our surroundings, and it takes time to reverse this behavior.

I believe that smiling is a natural habit we are all born with, but gradually it is extinguished by watching role models who do not smile or because we get punished somehow for smiling.

For a personal example, my parents rarely ever smiled, and consequently, I picked up that same behavior. I am, however, changing that by making a conscience effort every day to smile.

To introduce or enhance smiling in your organization, the first step is to realize that overcoming the habit of not smiling is a long-term process. It is not something you are going to be able to do overnight, but it is possible to reverse this habit, and I believe it must be reversed if you are ever going to have great customer service.

As with any new behavior, smiling must be practiced and rewarded over time, and as the leader of the company, it falls to you to provide a consistent example for your staff to see and emulate. Make it a point to remind your staff every day of the benefits of smiling in a fun way. This is so important to raising their awareness.

It is a long process, but the benefit to your customers will be worth the effort.

Jerry Osteryoung, the Jim Moran Professor of Entrepreneurship (Emeritus) and Professor of Finance (Emeritus) at Florida State University, can be reached at

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