How Do You Smile When You Don't Feel Happy?

It's not easy to hide your feelings.

My friend Jenny Dempsey recently wrote a personal and poignant post about this on her blog. Her beloved dog, Miso, had recently died and she was finding it difficult to hide her grief at work. 

That's exactly what her job requires her to do.

Jenny is a customer care manager at Her legendarily warm and bubbly customer service inspires songs from customers. That's what makes her so good at her job, where displaying warmth and friendliness towards customers is expected.

Suddenly, this was very difficult.

What Jenny found herself doing is what millions of customer service professionals do at some level each day. It's called surface acting and it's an epidemic. It causes poor customer service, decreased job satisfaction, and burnout.

Here's what you need to know and what you can do about it.

Key Terms: Surface Acting and Emotional Labor

Let's start with a couple of definitions.

Surface acting is a technique where you display an emotion that you don't actually feel. For example, here are some emotional displays typically required of customer service employees:

  • Smiling

  • Warm tone of voice

  • Positive and open body language

Those are all easy when you actually feel happy. Surface acting is when you don't feel happy but force yourself to smile anyway. This gets increasingly harder the bigger the gap between how you feel and the emotions you put on display.

The effort required to engage in surface acting is called emotional labor. The term emotional labor was first coined by Arlie Hochschild in her book, The Managed Heart. Like any type of effort, exerting too much can be exhausting.


What Drives Emotional Labor?

A neighbor recently complained to me about poor customer service he experienced while dining with his niece in a restaurant. His server wasn't friendly and he and his niece came to the conclusion that the server should be fired.

My neighbor can be a bit surly, so I can only imagine what a gem he must have been as a restaurant guest. It's an incredible challenge to serve someone with a smile who regarded you with such disdain that they would callously suggest you should lose your job.

Unsympathetic, demanding customers are a big drain on emotional labor, especially when people like this test our natural fight or flight instinct. I have the luxury of politely ending the conversation with my neighbor when he gets too grumpy. A restaurant server must stick with it and act happy.

Customer service employees face other challenges too. They might be grieving, like my friend Jenny, or just be having a bad day. Perhaps they dislike their co-workers, boss, or even their customers. It could be that they're tired of defending a defective product or a dumb policy.

Working conditions for customer service employees aren't always great. While intellectual and physical skills are highly valued, studies show you don't make a lot of money for being good at taking crap from other people. 

Unpredictable schedules can also make outside of work difficult. This incredible New York Times article profiled a young single mother who tried to balance school and child care while dealing with a work schedule that could change from week-to-week or even day to day. 

It's no surprise that retailers are currently under investigation by several states for requiring employees to be on-call for work without getting paid.


The Impact on Service

There are many ways that surface acting and emotional labor impact service. 

The obvious one is employees simply get tired. Expending too much emotional labor is one of the biggest reasons why customer service employee struggle to be friendly

Researcher Alicia Grandey at Penn State University discovered a strong link between surface acting and low job satisfaction. She also found a clear link to emotional exhaustion.

This may explain why my own study found that 74 percent of contact center agents are at risk of burnout. 

The tangible impact of all of these problems is lower customer satisfaction, lower employee engagement, and higher turnover. 


What Can You Do About It?

On a personal level, it's up to each employee to find his or her own happiness. One exercise you can try is called the Attitude Anchor.

For customer service managers, the solution isn't another incentive program or some other short-term fix. It's also not an annual employee engagement survey, which is usually a waste of time. Your challenge is to create a work environment where employees can actually be happy.

You need a really plan. Try creating your own road map by using this simple assessment or use the New Year as an opportunity to opt for a comprehensive, full-service version.

Above all, give your employees something to smile about.

Emotions: the next frontier in customer service efficiency

It's not always easy to act happy.

It's not always easy to act happy.

Many frontline customer service jobs have two things in common. First, the pay is low with many starting at minimum wage. Second, they require a high degree of emotional labor.

The market for emotional labor may be cheap, but it’s also woefully inefficient. 

I know it’s hard to make a business case for making your people feel better, but there’s always money to be made in efficiency. Companies love efficiency. This post explores how companies use emotional labor ineffeciently, the high costs associated with this problem, and explores some possible solutions.


What is emotional labor?

Here’s a brief explanation of emotional labor from a recent blog post about why customer service reps aren’t friendly:

“Emotional labor is a term initially coined by Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book, The Managed Heart. It refers to the effort required to display appropriate workplace emotions, such as friendliness and enthusiasm. The amount of emotional labor required is based on the difference between the emotions an employee is expected to display, and the emotions an employee actually feels.”

Think about the emotional labor that’s often required in customer service. Employees are expected to convey positive emotions to customers regardless of whether they actually feel this way. They must even remain calm and professional even when a customer treats them as a verbal punching bag and avoid taking it personally.

If you’ve ever worked in customer service, you know this isn’t always easy.


Cheap, but not efficient

A 2004 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that emotional labor is inversely correlated to hourly wages. The higher the level of emotional labor a job requires, the less that job is likely to pay. Examples come from customer service employees as well as other professions such as social workers, bill collectors, and 911 operators. 

Customer service employees don’t get paid much to act happy.

Cheap doesn’t necessarily mean efficient. There are also substantial costs associated with high degrees of emotional labor. These costs may offset or even surpass any savings associated with low wages. 

Here are just a few examples from high-stress customer service jobs:

  • Turnover. It costs a lot to hire and train employees, even cheap ones.
  • Absenteeism. Extra employees are required when people call out.
  • Productivity. People get less done when they feel emotionally drained.
  • Customer Satisfaction. Service quality suffers when emotions run high.

All of these costs negatively impact profitability.


Improving emotional labor efficiency 

Companies often improve efficiency by finding ways to reduce consumption. This strategy works brilliantly for emotional labor. Happy employees require less effort to project the right customer service personality.

Employee engagement is the key to reducing your emotional labor consumption. Engaged employees are overwhelmingly happy in their jobs. They are also highly committed to helping the company achieve its goals. 

Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace Report found that having engaged employees greatly reduced the costs associated with high emotional labor requirements. On average:

  • Turnover is 25% lower
  • Absenteeism is 37% lower
  • Productivity is 21% higher
  • Customer Satisfaction is 10% higher
  • Profitability is 22% higher

That's the business case. Your executives won't listen to a touchy-feely argument about employee happiness, but you'll capture their attention when you start the conversation with numbers they care about. Efficiency is efficiency.

Improving employee engagement isn’t easy, but I’ve assembled a short reading list to help you get started.

  • This post on the using the Employee Engagement Cycle will give you a strategic view of employee engagement. There’s even a short quiz to help you start the conversation.


  • Some customers require an unreasonable amount of emotional labor from your employees. Consider asking them to take their business elsewhere. Seth Godin has a nice and simple explanation.


  • Customer service leaders in low-margin industries like Trader Joe’s and Costco have found it’s more efficient to pay a higher wage so they can attract better employees. This post explores whether you should consider giving your employees a raise.

When I wrote my customer service book, Service Failure, it took me some time to find the right words to end the final chapter. I finally found a sentence that I think applies here quite well:

Above all else, customer service leaders must remember that while customer service can be difficult, their job is to make great performance easy.

Keep that in mind when you are working with your employees. What can you do to make it easy for them to be happy?

Why customer service reps aren't friendly

Why is it so hard for customer service reps to be friendly?

Why is it so hard for customer service reps to be friendly?

This post originally appeared on the Salesforce Blog. You can also read my latest Salesforce blog post, " How detoxing our brains can improve customer service."


Friendliness is a basic expectation for employees serving customers. It doesn’t cost anything and isn’t really a skill that needs to be trained. So why do we still receive unfriendly service over and over again?

I remember walking into a furniture store with my wife, Sally. There was a cluster of employees having a conversation at one end of the store when we arrived. Nobody stopped to greet us. We didn’t see anything exciting so we decided to leave after a few minutes.

One of the employees finally approached us as we left. “Can I help you?” he said tersely. No thanks, we’re just leaving. The employee obviously sensed that a lack of service had hastened our exit. “Hey! We’ve been here for 12 hours! Give us a break!”

Sally and I noticed a sign in the window for the first time as we left the store:

Going out of business sale! Everything must go!

We had a good laugh as we imagined we might have just identified the cause of the store’s demise.


The root cause of unfriendly service

It’s easy to get stuck thinking about what employees like the guy at the furniture store should have done. I think that answer is obvious. A more important question is why wasn’t he friendly?

One explanation is something called emotional labor.

Emotional labor is a term initially coined by Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book, The Managed Heart. It refers to the effort required to display appropriate workplace emotions, such as friendliness and enthusiasm. The amount of emotional labor required is based on the difference between the emotions an employee is expected to display, and the emotions an employee actually feels.

Simply put, it’s hard to be friendly if you don’t feel friendly.

Let’s go back to the furniture store. The employees were likely to lose their jobs after the store closed. It was difficult to take pride in their store since the merchandise grew less and less appealing as inventory was sold off. The employees felt tired from working long hours for a losing cause. It’s easy to imagine that they didn’t feel particularly friendly that day. This doesn’t excuse the poor service we received, but understanding the employees’ perspective does explain why it might have happened.

There are plenty of reasons why employees might not feel friendly. Upset customers, heavy workloads, demanding bosses, and poor products can all make an employee feel frustrated. This says nothing about what types of stress may be going on in employees’ personal lives. “Leave your problems at home” is simplistic advice that’s much easier said than done.

Contact centers often provide a great example of a work environment that can bring many of these factors together. Agents may feel frustration sinking in when they serve irate customer after irate customer. At the same time, their boss is breathing down their neck demanding greater productivity while monitoring their every move, even bathroom breaks. Meanwhile, agents might feel powerless to solve many of the problems they encounter that are caused by defective products or poorly designed processes.

Some employees just don’t like their jobs and feel miserable every day they go to work. I recently talked to a customer service employee who had great skills but a sour attitude. She confided in me that she absolutely hated her job! She had been hired into another position, which she liked, but her boss recognized her obvious talent by promoting her into a new role she couldn’t stand.


How to help service employees be friendlier

The best customer service leaders make it easy for employees to be friendly.

It starts by setting a positive example. Employees are much more likely to be friendly when they have a boss who is friendly, kind, and treats them with respect. On the other hand, gruffly telling employees to “act happier or you’ll be written up” rarely has the desired effect.

Another important strategy is hiring employees who will be happy to do what you want them to do. A company that sells covers for boats and RVs hired a boating enthusiast to work in their small customer service department. She was an immediate hit with her customers since she loved the job and could relate to the products. Her positive attitude even influenced an unfriendly co-worker who improved her own demeanor after working with the new employee.

Finally, involve employees in finding solutions to your toughest customer service challenges. This works in two ways. First, employees feel more empowered when they are able to give meaningful input on how to serve customers better. Second, working with upset customers requires a great deal of emotional labor so fixing the problems that upset customers naturally makes the job easier.