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The Smile Myth
What seems obvious isn't always true.

A great smile is important to your success in life. You can't argue with that. And if you want to improve your customer service in business, a great strategy is to tell all your front line people to smile! Well, maybe not.

Here's the catch. Not all smiles are created equal. Genuine smiles and fake smiles don't have the same power and impact. And secondly, genuine smiles are not produced by executive decree. To believe otherwise is to believe a myth. Unless you hired Mona Lisa, getting magical smiles is not so easy.

Without even knowing it, our "fake" detector is always turned on. We unconsciously read body language, facial signals, giving us an impression whether a smile is genuine or plastic.

Have you ever met someone and felt that you had been thrown a fake smile? A car salesman? A mortician? A politician? Someone at a singles bar? Your in-laws? Actually, you could list almost any group as occasionally guilty of less-than-genuine smiles.

Journalist Chandler Phillips, in preparing for his article titled Confessions of a Car Salesman (, went undercover by working at two new car dealerships in the Los Angeles area. He recalls greeting his first customer: "I don't think I'll ever forget the look on their faces...I saw the fear." But wait a minute. I'm sure he greeted them with a cheerful Hello. And you can be certain he sported a flashy smile. What happened?

Having a customer warm up to a sales person or front-line greeter is so much more complicated than a smile. More complicated than just a genuine or fake smile. And a good, trusting relationship doesn't happen at the snap of a finger or the flash or a smile. A solid relationship is complex and it takes time. Let's examine some of the considerations and factors that help us understand promoting good customer service, good first impressions, and good relationships.

First, you can't mandate smiles for you subordinates. I love the story about teaching pigs to sing. It turns out to be an impossible task. "It frustrates the farmer and irritates the pigs." And you can bet that the farmer can't sing any better than the pigs in the first place.

I was scheduled for an interview with the manager of a major Las Vegas casino. I knew that one of his goals was to have a casino floor staff with a reputation for their shining smiles. Before I met him for the interview, someone took me aside: "Don't be caught off guard if he never smiles during the interview!" And you know what? Not once did he smile during the entire ten-minute interview.

Later that month I took a friend to visit the casino. We walked thru the rows of slot machines to the pit of table games (blackjack, craps, roulette). My friend looked around and said, "Geez, where's the funeral!" Nobody was smiling. I mean NOBODY. The dealers weren't smiling. The floor supervisors weren't smiling. We weren't smiling.

You can't create smiles by demanding them. If that were possible, you'd be drowning in a sea of fake smiles. If you think that ordering smiles for your subordinates is a good strategy...go buy a case of wax lips.

Other factors leading to misguided smile strategies are: Sometimes our behavior gets in our way. Sometimes our thinking trips us up.

A common fallacy of human behavior is to dislike in others what we dislike about ourselves. A sarcastic person likely has little tolerance for other sarcastic people. A pushy person probably does not like to be pushed around by others. A person who never smiles is likely to be bugged by people who don't smile! Hence we have the grim-faced casino manager who wants to be surrounded by smiling faces. As the street-wise would say, "Ain't gonna happen!"

On the flip-side, another fallacy of human behavior is to think that everyone is just like us. Or, closer to the truth, that everyone SHOULD be like us. If we have a great natural smile we feel like others should also beam a celebrity smile. But people are NOT like us. Due to culture, family upbringing, peer group, genetics, medications, emotional states, bad teeth, and more…people are inclined or not inclined to smile. They are who they are. It's just the way it is.

Another fallacy is "what you see is what you get!" Not necessarily so. Interpreting human nature is more complex that just observing someone's smile. Just because a person isn't smiling doesn't mean he's unhappy. It doesn't mean she hates her job. It doesn't mean he dislikes working with customers. It doesn't mean that customers don't like her. Although a smiling worker is terrific, there is a good chance that the more serious-looking worker connects better with the customer than the worker with the mandatory, plastic smile. Excellence at work is so much more complicated than the issue of To-Smile-or-Not-To-Smile.

And sometimes "what you see isn't what you get" because our reading of smiles is an art and not a science. When we see a smile, many times the impression of whether it's real or fake is correct, but sometimes it's wrong. Here's a fun survey to test your ability to detect a genuine smile from one that is fake. The interesting thing about this test is that the twenty sample smiles are presented to you on video, not still photos. The best I could do was label 60% of the smiles correctly. Take the test at

So don't be wearing blinders and think that the smile is head-and-shoulders above all else in the creation of good customer relationships. It's just one piece of a much more complicated success formula. When observing your front line staff:
  • Do they talk to the customers with genuine interest?
  • Do they make the customers feel important?
  • Do they make friendly eye contact?
  • Do they go out of their way to help customers?
  • Do they answer questions in a friendly manner?
  • Do they pick up a piece of litter as they pass by?
  • Do they put something back in its proper place, even if it's not their job?
  • Do they refuse to tolerate fraud and abuse?
  • Do they love their job?
  • Do they appreciate the positive things about the workplace?
  • Do they compliment their fellow employees?
  • Do their fellow employees like them?
Don't fall into the trap of focusing solely or primarily on smiles as the magic bullet. If your employees have none of the qualities listed above working for you, a fake smile pasted on their faces will have no impact. None. Zero.

Of course the right way to get smiles on your front line staff is to lead by example. It starts with the people at the top smiling. You want to change someone else? You do it by changing yourself first. You want people to smile? Start by working on yourself. Make a better world by making a better you. Create a workplace that gives people a reason to smile. It starts with you.

For ideas on improving your smile, see the Smile Power article at:

The bottom-line lessons: First, watch for false assumptions, thinking and behavior on your part. And second, create a better you. Be a better person. Be a better supervisor. Be a better co-worker. Create a better workplace for your employees. Give others a REASON to smile. And then, when they love their job, the smiles and great customer service will come. Automatically.

Copyright 2006 by John Kinde

You may republish this article with the following credit line:
"Copyright by John Kinde, who is a humor specialist in the training and speaking business for over 30 years specializing in teambuilding, customer service and stress management. Free Special Reports: Show Me The Funny -- Tips for Adding Humor to Your Presentations and When They Don't Laugh -- What To Do When the Laughter Doesn't Come. Humor Power Tips newsletter, articles and blog are available at"

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