Guest article by Andreas Lechner, finalist of the 2020 SERVSIG Best Dissertation Award.

“People always got to see your smile. You always got to put on that fake […] no matter what you just been through.”
– Marshall Mathers

At first sight, it may come as a surprise that employees fake emotions more often than they show real ones. But maybe we can relate to the experience of many frontline employees, who – despite often not feeling like smiling – are asked to deliver ‘service with a smile’ to long lines of potentially demanding and sometimes even rude customers. The literature shows that real smiles (authentic displays) outperform fake smiles (inauthentic displays) with regard to all customer outcomes studied so far. In my doctoral dissertation, I set out to shed light on the exceptions to this rule. In three projects, I looked at when, where, and for which customers real smiles matter to their experience.

In one of my projects (Lechner and Mathmann 2020), we investigated the moderating role of customers’ regulatory focus (prevention and promotion). Preventers strive to avoid negative experiences and tend to focus on negative and manipulative information, whereas promoters strive for positive experiences and tend to focus on positive information. We find that preventers (vs. promoters) are less likely to tip and are less satisfied after interacting with frontline employees who display inauthentic emotions. Specifically, while inauthentic (compared to authentic) displays have a negative effect for preventers, there is no effect of authenticity for promoters, both for trait and state regulatory focus. Thus, from a practical perspective, our findings show that when customers (are made to) think like promoters it does not matter if employees fake smiles or show real ones.

But how can we ensure customers think like promoters? In one of our studies, we used promotion focus–related product benefits detailed by the employee to prime promotion (e.g., “this juice may contribute to the creation of greater energy”). While the literature highlights many other means to prime promotion, it would be particularly interesting to see, if employees could also prime promotion with promotion-related words (e.g., hope, improve, wish; see regulatory focus LIWC dictionary) to successfully mitigate the negative effects of inauthentic displays on service performance.

While I hope that my dissertation adds a piece to the puzzle that helps us understand customer reactions to emotion display authenticity, I know that despite 37 years of research into the topic, there are still many unknowns. For example, thinking about our current situation makes me wonder whether we might react differently to authenticity amid the Covid-19 crisis. Does wearing a mask change how we perceive emotions and their authenticity? A study by Prof. Hess, which will be published soon, suggests that our perception of authenticity remains unaffected if the person smiling at us wears a mask. Despite covering the most expressive part of the face, we still perceive authenticity either through interpreting facial muscle activity in the eye region and additional gestural and vocal cues or through mirroring and subsequently experiencing the displayed emotion.

But how will we react to authenticity given that we still perceive it? Does the psychological toll of social isolation strengthen the impact of authentic displays as they show us real sympathy and caring, which we all long for in times like these? Or will we feel more strongly with employees who may show fake smiles because of their uncertainty and fear, making us more lenient when it comes to our expectations of what service should look like?

Andreas Lechner
Research Fellow, Faculty of Business Administration and Economics, Universität Augsburg, Germany

Photo credit: Patrick Tomasso.