The Case Against Overly Perky Salespeople

There are better ways to win customers' good will and wallets.
Photographer: Westend61/Getty Images

Trader Joe's sales clerks make small talk as they bag our groceries. Salad makers at Sweetgreen use a "sweet touch" with us as they scoop avocado onto piles of kale. Zappos customer service reps "let their true personalities shine" while fielding shoe returns. 

Sure, we know it's an act. Salespeople, who make around $10 an hour, on average, are required to put on a happy face in the service of "company culture." Most days, we just want to order a slightly overpriced but delicious salad from a moderately pleasant person and move on with our days.

The cheerful approach, the theory goes, drives sales by creating a pleasant environment. Relaxed shoppers spend more, research has found, and they're more likely to return if they've had a pleasant experience. Plus, happy employees tend to stick around longer, driving down turnover costs.

But perennial perkiness also risks irritating customers and emotionally exhausting employees. (Just ask the former Trader Joe's employee who says he was reprimanded, and eventually fired, because his smile was insufficiently "genuine.")

"If people see it as genuine and sincere, it does have a positive effect," said Gary Latham, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. "If they see it as just people being trained and it's inauthentic, then it can backfire." 

There are better ways to win customers' good will and wallets.

Influencing a customer's subconscious can be more important than shaping his or her actual experience at a store, Latham has found. His recently published study found that putting happy-face stickers on people's receipts improved their recollections of their customer experience.

In the study, shoppers at a large retail store in Canada got one of two different types of receipts—one with a smiley-face sticker and one with a geometric-shape sticker. (In a separate experiment, one group of shoppers was given smiley-face stickers and the other no stickers, as a control.) Afterward, they took a survey that asked them to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, three statements: "The cashiers were friendly," "I would recommend this store to my friends and family," and "Overall, I was very satisfied with my experience at this store."

In both experiments, those who got happy-face stickers were "significantly more satisfied" than those who didn't. 

"I was shocked," said Latham. "I think customer service matters, but if you want to affect someone's recall of that experience, you can do so regardless of whether that experience was negative, neutral, or positive. It shows how the subconscious can overrule your consciousness." 

For retailers, the findings suggest that a little cheer can go a long way—and that service-industry workers need not have the best people skills for customers to feel they've gotten good service.

This should be particularly encouraging for people, particularly men, who have avoided taking available retail, customer-service, and other pink-collar jobs—the kind of work that's on the rise—because they don't think they're good with people. After all, anyone can smile.

Still, Latham cautions that this is the first study of its kind and that he wants to conduct more research to answer other questions. He next wants to test whether smiley-face receipts might also work at self-checkout.

If they do, that might not bode well for workers. If someone recalls her experience as fondly when she gets a smiley-face from a machine as when it comes from a human, that's one less reason to have clerks at all. 

And in any case, an even better guarantee of customer satisfaction than cheerfulness is efficiency.

In 2012, Zeynep Ton, a researcher at MIT, looked at four low-price retailers—Trader Joe's, Costco, convenience store chain QuikTrip, and Spanish supermarket chain Mercadona—that hire more employees and pay them more than their competitors.

These four companies had much higher labor costs, but they were also more profitable. They had more sales per employee, and their workers did a better job than rivals at stocking shelves with the right products and removing misplaced items, she found. (Studies have found that paying low-wage workers above-market wages makes them more productive.) 

Her findings appear to have held true for low-paid workers at the world's biggest low-price retailer, too: After Walmart gave its workers a raise in 2015, customer satisfaction rose for nearly two years straight in both in-house and third-party surveys. Sales rose, too. 

Customers, it turns out, prefer well-run stores to chatty clerks.

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