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Emotional authenticity

The challenges of emotional authenticity for service staff - and how Deep Acting can help


Service with a smile 100% of the time can be hard for employees, and they won't always get away with faking it. So how can they avoid harming the customer experience?

19th Aug 2020
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The importance of a smile to customer service and customer relationships cannot be overemphasised. A genuine smile is that one singular expression that leaves customers with no ambiguity whatsoever as regards how he or she is being received. However, the keyword in the preceding statement is the word “genuine”.

The thing about a smile is that people erroneously believe they can fake it and get away with it. That is seldom the case, though. A fake smile can be spotted a mile off. The reason for this ease in detecting the authenticity of a smile is in the biology behind every smile.

Scientists have found that two main muscles are involved in creating the genuine smile. There are the Zygomaticus major and minor muscles which pull up the corners of the mouth and the Orbicularis oculi which is located around the eye and is responsible for the squinting or crinkling of the eye during a smile or laughter.

The interesting thing about these two muscles is that the former is under the conscious control of the individual whereas the latter is an involuntary muscle. Therefore, one can, on one’s own accord, easily lift the sides of one’s mouth to give an impression of a smile without actually meaning it. This is what is very easy to detect.

The genuine smile is, however, the one that comes from within and innervates the Orbicularis oculi, causing wrinkles around the eyes. In other words, we genuinely smile with our eyes and not with our lips. The average person might not know the biology behind the act of smiling but we know a genuine smile when we see one. 

Customers know when a customer service employee is faking a smile - and they resent that. Customers want an authentic experience. Anything else makes them feel like they are being taken for fools.

In this regard, authenticity could be regarded as a competitive advantage. And some organisations even devote a large portion of their training budget to get service staff exhibiting authentic behaviour in the line of duty. No business wants its customers to detect inauthentic behaviour among its staff, especially whose duties involve dealing with customers regularly.

What determines the perception of authenticity?

It has, however, to come to light in recent times that customers have varying degrees of success detecting the authenticity of a smile. In other words, the same smile can be judged to be genuine by some customers and seen as fake by other customers. For service staff, this means that he or she might get away with a fake smile regarding one customer but another customer would find him or her out.

The question that naturally arises therefore is, “what are the factors that go into determining how customers perceive the genuineness of a smile?”

This was the one question that researchers, Andreas T. Lechner and Michael Paul from the Faculty of Business & Economics, University of Augsburg, Germany sought to answer. Their results are found in a May 2017 study published in the Journal of Business Research titled Is this smile for real? The role of affect and thinking style in customer perceptions of frontline employee emotion authenticity”. As can be seen from the title, the researchers set out to study two variables - customer affect and customer thinking style - and their effect on our ability to accurately determine authenticity.

The first variable, customer affect, is described as any immediately expressed and observed emotion that a customer displays. In psychiatry and psychology, an emotion is described as an affect when it is observable. If the emotion is displayed for others to see, then it is an affect. Although akin to mood, scientists are quick to point out that there is a difference between mood and affect. Though both are displays of emotions, mood is more pervasive and more sustained.

From Lechner and Paul’s study it was observed that the emotion a customer finds himself or herself in has an effect on whether that particular customer is able to determine how genuine or how fake the service employee's smile is. The study revealed that when customers experience positive affect, they tend to perceive the display of positive emotions of the employee as more authentic. In crude terms, a happy customer will tend to see a smile from an employee as more positive, even if the employee is actually faking the smile.

The other determinant of how well customers are able to determine the authenticity, or otherwise, of a smile is the way the customer processes information. Scientists assert that when it comes to information processing individuals either use an analytical-rational or intuitive-experiential approach. These two approaches operate side by side but interact regularly to produce particular behaviours and thoughts in people.

In the analytical-rational system, the individual takes a deliberate, slow and logical approach in looking at a matter at hand. Based on one’s past experience, the intuitive-experiential system is faster and more emotionally-driven. This dual system of processing information and coming to a conclusion on an issue is something we all use on a daily basis. Therefore, in an encounter between a customer and a CSE, customers would use a combination of the two systems in different variations.

The Lechner and Paul study found that the higher the combination of the analytical and the intuitive, the more authentic the customer sees any positive displays by the CSE. In other words, when customers tend to combine high levels of the logical and the intuitive, they are more likely to misinterpret the actions of those at the front line.

Key takeaways

There are many takeaways from this particular study.

For instance, organisations must ensure that their front desks (or offices) are set up in such a way that customers would feel good just by walking in. It is generally known that certain fragrances can instantly put people in a pleasurable mood. It has even been argued that certain colour combinations used in painting the front office has an effect on the mood of customers. By using the right fragrances and right colour combination in the customer reception area, chances of customers being happy during the transaction increases. In this case, if the customer is already in a happy mood, he or she would not be able to determine accurately if the smile from the service employee is genuine or fake.

Also it is important to ensure that businesses deliver as promise. Nothing makes a customer happier than to get what he or she expected or for those expectations to be exceeded. A customer who is pleasantly being surprised would not be too concerned about whether the front desk lady’s smile is genuine or fake. This would ensure that customers would go through the transaction in a happy mood, therefore taking away the need for the service staff to offer a genuine smile.

Deep Acting is a technique that relies on the individual getting into a certain mood or emotional state based on a thought the one holds in the mind.

However, for me, what stands out most from Lechner and Paul’s study is the fact that different customers perceive authenticity differently. Therefore, in order for service staff to be on the safe side, it is important that the one does everything possible to be authentic in all displays at the front line.

The one way that has proven to be very useful in getting employees to smile authentically is the use of Deep Acting. This is a technique that relies on the individual getting into a certain mood or emotional state based on a thought the one holds in the mind. A service employee using Deep Acting technique would think a certain pleasurable thought that would naturally put a smile on the face.

A pleasurable thought could be the thought of the one’s child smiling or laughing. It could be the mere thought of a loved one or the thought of one’s own achievement. The smile that such thoughts would bring up would be as genuine as genuine can be.

Any customer that approaches an employee thinking those pleasurable thoughts with a smiling face as a result of those thoughts would immediately feel the warmth of that employee. Although that smile might not necessarily be for the customer, the customer would not know and would assume the employee is genuinely happy because of the customer.

Deep Acting is opposed to Surface Acting, where the individual just fakes the outward display of the emotion. As has been seen from Lechner and Paul’s study, one might get away with Surface Acting with some customers but other customers are not too easily fooled.

For as long as humans continue to serve humans, the outward display of emotions is something that we can never do away with. Customers will come into an encounter or transaction reading the body language of those they interact with. Every gesture, every movement, even the slightest twitch of a muscle would be observed, read and interpreted according that the particular customer’s own internal makeup. Some customers would be better at detecting fake displays of positive emotions - others, not so much.

But in the end, those who will end up winning the hearts (and pockets) of their customers would be those who, through the technique of Deep Acting, master the art of faking a genuine smile. 

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