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01 Sep 2022 (Thu)     

Research finds smiling and nodding frontline staff a plus for businesses, but not enough to change customer perception

A sum of HK$1.26 billion has been earmarked to support and develop the tourism industry in the Financial Secretary’s 2022-23 Budget, of which HK$60 million will be used to sponsor the training of tourism practitioners with a view to further improving the professional standards and service quality of the industry. Following the implementation of “3+4” quarantine model, it is expected that more tourists will visit Hong Kong in the latter half of 2022. Businesses need to prepare themselves for the re-arrival of guests soon. HKMU researchers have previously completed a research on how consumers perceive the gestures of frontline staff and found that more efforts should be made in improving product and service to alter customers’ evaluation of a product and a brand.

Businesses involving frontline interaction with customers often emphasize the importance of a ‘sweet smile’. Originated in the West, the ‘service with a smile’ dictum has now been adopted in nearly all parts of the world. Numerous research findings have confirmed the significant role of smiling in building customer rapport. But related studies on nodding, a prevailing interactive gesture in Chinese culture, were lacking. Dr Woo Ka-shing, Associate Professor of the Lee Shau Kee School of Business and Administration of HKMU, tried to plug this gap when they launched the research titled “Service with a Smile and Emotional Contagion: A Replication and Extension Study”.

Around 260 ethnic Chinese millennial tourists were recruited to answer questions on eight video vignettes, each involving a simulated service encounter between a customer and a travel manager displaying different levels of a genuine smile (Duchenne smile) – with cheeks raised, teeth showing, and wrinkles around the eye corners – and repeated down-nods.

“The symbiotic interaction between a high extent of the Duchenne smile and repeated down-nods was found to result in the favourable perception of both nonverbal immediacy and authenticity of service encounter behaviour which correlated positively with employee-customer rapport. However, the findings also highlighted that the link between putting customers in a good mood and evaluation of service quality might not be as significant as it seemed. Perhaps this is because Chinese are slow to warm up and will only develop strong relationships with others after understanding and trust have been cultivated,” said Dr Woo.

He recommended that repeated down-nods should be used in conjunction with the Duchenne smile in employee-customer interactions. “While a smiling employee is a key to a successful business, the smile should be genuine. It’s not easy to maintain a smiling face for a long time. Recovery activities, such as microbreaks and mindfulness training, should be provided for frontline employees,” he added.


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