Is That Processing On Your Face Or Are You Just Unhappy To See Me?


Hello shoppers… 

Look at yourself in a mirror. Go ahead, do it right now. I’ll wait. 

So what did you see? A smile? Tears, because you missed my post? Or did you have a blank look on your face, not happy, not sad, just…blank? 

"'Welcome To Wal-Mart.' Hmm...I could do that."

Congratulations.  You are now qualified to work in retail. 

We shoppers rarely receive anything but a non-committal glance from workers unless they’re realtors – those people never stop grinning. Otherwise we consistently get facial scraps from retail store staff. If there’s a helpful smile in every aisle at Hy-Vee, those aisles must feature plutonium and rabid dogs and are thus off-limits to customers. Hat racks show more emotion than check-out counter clerks. 

So are workers just that unhappy? Let’s just say they’re not exactly thrilled. 

Workers are less happy than ever

The Conference Board Research Group reports that only 45% of employees say they are satisfied with their work, down from 49% in 2008. The survey doesn’t tell us if employees are satisfied in general, with anything, just their occupation. Which is why I tell my clients, look for and hire happy because that’s a talent – then teach the skills. 

So it’s not that every employee is miserable. That’s just the Post Office. I think there’s something else going on here that impacts the look on employee’s pusses – it’s called processing or simply, thinking. 

There are many human body functions considered autonomic – they happen without us having to think about them. They include our heart beating, breathing, eyes blinking, swallowing, digestion and some naughty things I won’t mention but you can read and giggle at by clicking here. But I warn you, there’s a lot of really big words and no pictures, and it’s hardly like reading Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. Which you can find by clicking here. 

For just about everything else – moving our arm, turning our head, thumbing through Sports Illustrated – we have to think about it. And that includes smiling. If we don’t actually think about making ourselves smile (unless we think something’s funny, which is called something else and will be discussed in another post) then our facial muscles relax, giving us a neutral or “blank” expression, a look that’s easy to misinterpret by others as unhappy. Think of the faces of people in photos taken 100 years ago, with old cameras with long exposure times that forced people to hold a neutral look, rather than smile. How does everybody look in the 1860’s? Angry. Depressed. And this was years before talk radio.   

Don't smile - you're in retail

The solution is simple – use more modern cameras. The other solution is for business owners to train employees to be aware of the way their faces look to consumers (hanging mirrors within eyeshot is a great first step) and insist that smiling be a part of their everyday process, as important as any other job task. 

During training I will challenge employees (and the owner) to smile for an entire day – or even half a day – and to gently point out to each other when someone has stopped grinning. Invariably staff will tell me that by the end of the day, their faces hurt 🙂 Of course that’s simply because they’re not used to using the muscles that make them smile, certainly not in the workplace – which is why changing the retail culture takes complete buy-in and constant diligence from an owner. 

Shoppers want to see smiles on their retail dates. And with proper training, they can get them – smiling, happy employees (or at least happier) interacting with smiling, happy shoppers – and that’s a pretty picture. 

Jonnie Wright is a marketing consultant and customer service trainer in Des Moines, Iowa. Email him at jonniewright@thebuyosphere.com

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