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Who'd you make smile today?


Marketers and managers tell us to "delight" the customer. But they're usually talking about heroic gestures, "empowering the front line", and virtually always about how to use this "happy customers" focus as a competitive advantage. But sometimes it's the smallest of things that can make all the difference. Things that aren't bullet points in the brochure or check marks in product comparisons. Things that just... make you smile. Things the one who made you smile didn't need to do.

In the midst of a two-day travel hell to get to Australia two days ago, I landed in the Honolulu airport for a 9,256 hour layover. I was sleep-deprived, jet-lagged, and still mourning the loss of my lotion at Security Checkpoint Theater. And then I saw it. Marking the entrance to the Men's Restroom on the airport concourse is the typical international "MAN" symbol with one little upgrade... the little guy's wearing a Hawaiian shirt (even has a little lei). I smiled. For the first time in 12 hours.

Too often we see formal institutionalized smile-strategies... like the Southwest airline flight attendants inserting jokes into their safety speech. But some of those attendants are simply repeating the script, and it shows. It's a lot more smile-inducing when the flight attendant just blurts something out spontaneously, in response to something in realtime. Or when they announce to the entire plane that there's a couple in coach celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, having just returned from a romantic second honeymoon. Or when the pilot comes on and starts describing the joy of flying by telling you way too much about the physics of flight. THESE things make me smile, and for those of us who can't afford first-class, it comes just when we need it the most. And I want to know, "What causes these smile-inducing people to behave like this even though they don't need to?"

What are some other non-institutionalized things you can do to make someone smile? And what does it take to support that in your company without trying to institutionalize it? (which of course never actually works). I think we can all assume that someone who goes out of their way to bring a smile to your face--for no reason other than they want to--they must be feeling genuinely good. Those phoning-it-in aren't likely to make you smile. They aren't likely to smile themselves, let alone to care whether YOU do.

A few things that make me smile...
(That they didn't need to do)

* A thoughtful, almost imperceptible feature in a product. Something that surprises you that they'd have that attention to detail on something that appears to exist solely to make you a little happier, but adds nothing to the actual capability of the product. (Or so you might think... in reality, of course, it's those little things that can be the deal-makers or breakers in keeping us in flow).

* Easter eggs in software (good software... as an earlier commenter pointed out, if your software has big flaws and faults and I find an easter egg, it'll really piss me off that you spent resources on THAT instead of making a product that actually works)

* Insider references or homages (a form of easter egg) inside a product manual. (e.g. using TPS reports in a sample)

* Whimsical names for dishes on a menu (often this IS formalized, but sometimes it just feels like someone cared enough to make an otherwise dull diner a bit more festive)

* Playing foreign-language training tapes in the bathrooms of an ethnic restaurant.

* Fresh-baked cookies in the lobby. GOOD coffee in the reception area, not that crap instant with fake creamer. When I taste that first sip of really good coffee, I always close my eyes and smile. Bliss : )

Really, though, there's one really simple thing that we can do to make someone else smile.


We've talked before about how scientists know that smiling produces physiological changes in your body. And thanks to mirror neurons, we know that seeing someone else smile or laugh can trigger the same neurons reponsible for making us smile.

But this cannot be faked:


But we can tell a real one by looking at the eyes, not the lips:



Crinkly eyes = real smile. No crinkly eyes? Faker. (or too much botox)

Bonus: take this BBC quiz to test your ability to spot the difference between someone who's smile is genuine vs. a faker.

Perhaps the real question should not be, "Who'd you make smile today?" but rather, "How can you get yourself to smile more?" We all know it's true... real, genuine, authentic, natural smiles are infectious. Picture the people you know who can light up a room when they walk in with a big, REAL, smile. We can all be those people. Imagine if someone told you that you had the power to instantly alter someone else's blood/brain chemisty in a positive way, potentially improving their immune system and giving them more physical energy. And all you had to do was flash them a smile. We can all be those people.

But for so many of us, we don't interact with our users face-to-face, so the next step, then, is to figure out how we can inspire ourselves and especially our employees and co-workers to "virtually" smile at our users by doing something with our products or services that causes them to smile. (Quickest change: do something with your online tech support pages. Next quickest, do something with the user documentation)

Remember, it's often the smallest of things. Like a bathroom sign that changed the rest of my day.

[Tip: keep a 'smile journal' for a week or two, and try to write down every little thing that caused you to smile when you interacted with a product or service or person, and look for a pattern (or at least some ideas you can use). You can also track another person you interact with, and write down how often THEY smile, and what caused it. If the notebook is nearly blank at the end of two weeks, time to rent some Monty Python.]

So, who'd you make smile today? Who made you smile today?

Posted by Kathy on January 15, 2007 | Permalink


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Welcome to Australia, Kathy. I hope you're given plenty of reasons to smile while you're over here.

I'll often use the names of obscure movie characters in my scenarios. I know I shouldn't, it pulls the participant out of flow, technically. But I love it when they recognise the name and smile.

The BBC quiz was a piece of cake. If you don't see it in the windows to the soul, it's not real.

Posted by: Theresa Cunnington | Jan 15, 2007 6:54:11 PM

Hi Kathy,

Just found your blog a few days ago - marvellous addition to my RSS feeds - hope you're enjoying Sydneytown!



(ps. if after a good coffee, Bill and Tonis in Stanley Street, Darlinghurst is a good bet :o)

Posted by: Ian Stalvies | Jan 15, 2007 7:06:00 PM

Personal contact and adventurous disposition can make someone smile. Have you ever been at the make-up counter of a Macy's store on the first Saturday of the clearance sales? Pure madness!

Last time I was there I met a lovely 25-year old from France (originally from the Middle East) who looked spent. She was so gloomy that the big smile I carried with me spilled on the counter and soon infected her disposition. We chatted amiably while I was making my purchase and she even forgot where she was: we ended up in her hometown basking in the sun and searching for that trace of foundation on her young face.

Ah, the good times we can have when we forget we're supposed to feel harried and upset!

Posted by: Valeria Maltoni | Jan 15, 2007 7:09:42 PM

This post made me smile.

Your examples point to *really* thinking about customer experience -- investing execution with creativity and passion -- as the source of smiles for customers.

Posted by: Mike Duffy | Jan 15, 2007 7:13:33 PM

I've had the good to work at a string of companies (especially my current employer, Disney) composed from peon to president of people who already buy into the points of this great post, but I've heard many times from people who work at companies where the kind of attitudes which generate smiles are considered unacceptably risky. That is to say, some companies would punish their employees for decorating the men's room sign, talking about the physics of flight, or adding easter eggs to software (ESPECIALLY 'Office Space' references).

Having never worked at a company like that, I don't know what I would do about it except to look for work elsewhere. People need to lighten up!

Posted by: Robert de Forest | Jan 15, 2007 7:29:16 PM

It's really easy to spruce up something like a user's manual with something that can make you smile. I wrote about our "Intentionally Blank Page Poetry" a little while ago:


Posted by: apenwarr | Jan 15, 2007 8:00:12 PM

Unexpected humor in user guides is always good!

Posted by: Tim | Jan 15, 2007 8:15:26 PM

Hawaiian T-Shirt?

ha :-)


Posted by: ggwfung | Jan 15, 2007 8:48:35 PM

Wonderful, wonderful blog post as always.
:) :)
Have fun in Kangaroo Land.

Posted by: thodarumm | Jan 15, 2007 9:24:20 PM

Great post. The real-vs.-fake smile has always hit a nerve with me. I recently read an intersting book by Paul Ekman called "Emotions Revealed" that talks about the physical expression of emotions. Paul discovered that there is one cruicial muscle around the eyes that is contracted during a genuine smile that is extremely difficult to manipulate at will (of course, Paul learned to do it manually and demonstrates it in a picture in the book). "In a fake smile, only the zygomatic major muscle, which runs from the cheekbone to the corner of the lips, moves. In a real smile, the eyebrows and the skin between the upper eyelid and the eyebrow come down very slightly. The muscle involved is the orbicularis oculi, pars lateralis."

Posted by: Chris | Jan 15, 2007 9:56:21 PM

My Nano remembers where I was in a podcast NO MATTER WHEN I come back to it. That was when I realized why everyone else was smiling about their Ipod. I am no apple fan boy, in fact, I had never owned an apple product in my life, but with attention to detail like this, I might be a convert.

Posted by: Chris Finlayson | Jan 15, 2007 11:57:41 PM

RE: Fake smiles...
When I find that the smiles I try to put on my face are fake I always resort to Laughter Yoga techniques:
That "Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha" is incredibly effective! I just repeat it in my mind a couple of times and something changes inside.
If that is not enough... well then I resort to the heavy artillery:

Posted by: Peter | Jan 16, 2007 1:03:12 AM

Isn't that strange.. I just found your blog, too, excellent timing to say welcome to Australia!

Posted by: wofoblog | Jan 16, 2007 1:27:43 AM

I was at a party not long ago and a group of people started talking about one of my clients, commenting that as soon as you walk in their office, EVERYONE stands up, smiles and goes out of their way to greet you, from the receptionist to the junior analysts. They asked a guy who worked there if it was a company policy to greet people with smiles, to which he responded with a bewildered look, and a "no; it's just a fantastic place to work." It's a circular relationship: <=Happy environment <=> happy employees <=> happy customers =>. Basically, your little Hawaiian bathroom man started that cycle of smiles...

Posted by: Carolyn | Jan 16, 2007 1:35:06 AM

The jokey aircrew thing reminds me of a flight from New Orleans to Tucson I took years ago (I think it was Delta, but the details escape me maybe two decades' distance back home in the UK) when most of the passengers disembarked in Phoenix, leaving perhaps a dozen of us on board, all of whom had been on the plane since its original departure. So we'd heard the safety lecture (done straight) a few hours back. The crew started normally (about one crew member per passenger) but cracked up spontaneously when they got the the part about "water landings". On the Phoenix-Tucson route. So they gave up and came and sat with us at the back for the 25 minutes we were in the air. An unusually enjoyable flight, marred only by our luggage not arriving until the following day.

Just remembered: it was 1986. We flew the day England lost to Argentina in the World Cup quarter-final.

Posted by: Mike Woodhouse | Jan 16, 2007 3:22:56 AM

Wahey! I got 16 out of 20.

This smiling thing is a bit of a tough one. I smile a lot, and have been told that it is a sign of feminine submissiveness, insecurity and a need to please. Others have imputed it to my being African, saying that they have noticed that black Africans tend to be very smiley and see no reason why this can't be true of white ones.

My husband is Scandinavian and doesn't smile easily, which makes people around him insecure. They get quite flustered when he doesn't return smile for smile. I have discussed this with him, and he says that he smiles when it feels right and he can't be doing with fake smiles just to stop people from feeling insecure. Good point, I guess. Strangely, he has a ready laugh.

I like Carolyn's comment, though, about the environment fostering natural smiles automatically.

Posted by: Karyn Romeis | Jan 16, 2007 3:55:52 AM

I think it's the unexpected smiles that matter the most, the things that suddenly make you smile. I was in the supermarket yesterday, perfectly happy in my normal fog of "where the heck have they moved it to this time", when I heard a young girl happily, and loudly, singing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star", which for no reason just made me smile. She was enjoying herself so much, sitting in the trolley, singing away. It was lovely.

Posted by: Dave Sussman | Jan 16, 2007 4:21:10 AM

One Company that excels at this is Disney. My wife and I were in DisneyWorld a few years ago. We stopped at the concierge desk to pick up some tickets to a show, and chit-chatted with the woman for about 2-3 minutes. We went to the parks, saw the show, and came back to the hotel HOURS later.

As we were walking through the lobby, the same woman saw us, called to us BY NAME, and asked us how we enjoyed the show.

On their cruise ship, every night our cabin steward would make little animals out of the towels. He'd often incorporate our personal belongings into a little scene, like putting sunglasses on the frog. The first night he made a little cup out of a washcloth to hold our toothbrushes.

Everywhere we go at any Disney property, they put these little extra touches in to make you feel special. And every time we find something one, it makes us smile. Every time I REMEMBER these things, they make me smile.

Posted by: fred | Jan 16, 2007 7:10:15 AM

What made me smile yesterday - a sign in a cheese shop in my neighborhood:

"Unattended children will be given an espresso and a free puppy."

Posted by: ken | Jan 16, 2007 7:27:57 AM

The women's bathroom sign is even better - she's wearing a muumuu.

Posted by: helen | Jan 16, 2007 8:23:32 AM

Really good writing makes me smile. Not just great ideas well expressed -- lots of people can do that. It's the easter eggs I love, like "Security Checkpoint Theater" or "and fade as lyrically as a dancer". Things the writer didn't have to add, but which transform the experience for the reader.


Posted by: John Windsor | Jan 16, 2007 8:24:56 AM

Great post as almost always. And it captures why this is one of my favorite blogs. It generates the highest number of genuine smiles of all my reading.


Posted by: Jim McGee | Jan 16, 2007 9:06:46 AM

"What causes these smile-inducing people to behave like this even though they don't need to?"

The number one thing that I think it all boils down to? Passion!

I suspect that smile-inducing behavior is actually the "normal" way for people behave (perhaps "instinctive" would be a better word). But so many people are in situations where they learn that being passionate and doing those smile-inducing things gets them in trouble for goofing around (I saw a few mentions of this in other comments, too). So they stuff it, suppress it, quell or quench their passion, and become sourpusses who then propagate it because if they can't have a good time, dammit, neither can anyone else!

But when the environment encourages people to be passionate, to really get into whatever it is that they are doing, then they get so excited and so wrapped up in what they are doing that they stop worrying so much about what other people are going to think if they put this funny little twist in--or they project that other people will get a kick out of it so of course they want to share it with them!

Plus, especially in the case of the airline crews (for example) I think there's almost a little thrill of doing something you shouldn't. They're supposed to be professional, which apparently means cold and polite. So when they cross that line and do something warm and engaging there's something a little taboo about it. I think that might be why it almost always goes over well with passengers, too; it's a little bit of a surprise to realize that inside that uniform, just behind the nametag, there's a Real Person with feelings and emotions and everything! And after that, there's a sense of connection with that person that didn't quite exist before.

In a huge percentage of these cases, the smiler will never again encounter the person who made them smile (or even a first time in the case of things like that bathroom sign). But for the duration of the encounter there will be that little sense of connection, and after reading so many of the stories here in the comments I have to say that even just the memory of that will continue to evoke a smile for years to come.

Posted by: Joel J. | Jan 16, 2007 9:18:10 AM

Two things that made me smile today:

Just finished reading Dan Saffer's "designing for interaction" book and he throws in a few comments that surprise you and get a giggle. i.e. in a discussion on company branding, he sayd "IF BMW suddenly wanted to offer health care services, you'd have to wonder if the CEO went off his medication."

Second, our Help Desk people reside in the cube next to us (developers). They have purchased a cube "easy button" from the local office supply store. Every now & then we hear them after completing a help call, "That was easy!" Last week one of the help desk guys suggested he take it with while his wife delivered their first baby - us women said to go ahead and do it if he really didn't want to live...


Posted by: Lana B. | Jan 16, 2007 9:56:46 AM

A 9,256 hour layover!? That's one hell of a layover. Something like 285 days? But you're in Hawaii; there are worse places to spend 9,256 hours!

Posted by: Dave | Jan 16, 2007 10:11:53 AM

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