The smile may be the single most powerful sales tool ever.

I enjoy observing how the help in stores engage with their customers. What you see and hear speaks volumes about the leaders they work for.

Want to know how people feel about their jobs and their bosses? It’s on their faces. Employees mirror the treatment they receive from their leaders. While this theme begs some additional reading in the emerging field of social neuroscience (Goleman et. al), it really comes down to common sense.

My Experience in the Big Box: Welcome to Zombieland!

Walk into some big box stores and spend a few minutes observing people. The cashiers don’t make eye contact with their customers and a smile is a rare sighting. The few available floor clerks seem to head the other way when a customer with a puzzled look on his face enters the area.  You get the impression that some transformation has taken place, sucking the joy of life out of the employees.

Seriously, for people to be so socially cold, they truly must hate their work, their boss or whatever fate brought them there.  Evidence wasn’t far away during a recent, rare visit, as I was able to observe someone in a suit (probably corporate) dressing down a small team of employees (in front of customers) for clearly not following some arcane procedure somewhere. The employees were staring at their shoes, while this creepy, arrogant little reject from leader school attempted to showcase his authority.

I couldn’t wait to get of out that store, and I wondered why it was that compelled me to walk through the doors in the first place. The bosses own responsibility for creating that hell-like, night of the living dead atmosphere.

A Little Honey, A Little Vinegar on Main Street

Once I recovered from the big box experience, I continued my holiday rounds on our community’s Main Street, where I experienced both the good and the bad from small business leadership.

I visited one of my wife’s favorite shops and shop owners, where I was greeted with a handshake and personally walked through the process of selecting items that I have no qualifications to select. I spent at least twice as much as I intended and left feeling great.

The treatment was fantastic, and it appeared to be the de facto standard for everyone who walked in the door. The employees dealt with customers in the same happy, respectful and helpful fashion as their boss, and the cash register was clearly ringing.

Now,  I needed one more item, and this great shop owner sent me down the block to another Main street merchant, where once again, I was back in retail leadership hell.

I walked into the brightly colored store (good) and observed the owner and an employee huddled over something that must have been really important. I said “hello” and received two clearly annoyed stares followed by a curt and unsmiling greeting.  Intrigued, I mentioned the shop owner that had sent me this way, and this time was met with silence. I milled around a little, found what I was looking for, and decided that the lack of interest on their part was mutual. I set the item down, went home and ordered it on-line.  No smile, no interest, no sale.

As an aside, all of you sales and marketing pros, contemplate what just happened in this last incident. A customer with need and money (highly qualified), was sent to the store (a referral) by a store owner (high credibility, high probability of making a purchase) , and all of that hard work was flushed down the toilet of indifference. Repeat that a few times over every month and one might bet (hope) this store is no longer around next year. A qualified lead and a valued referral…all retail road kill due to indifference.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The greatest selling technique ever, might just be direct eye contact and a smile. Leaders, send someone out to shop in your stores or visit your place of business and observe how employees are dealing with customers.  The results might truly frighten you. And then do something about it!

And leaders, in what parallel universe do you come from where “not giving a crap” about your customers is a good plan? I don’t care if you’re the general manager of a Big Box or, the owner of a small retailer, know that one of the unarguable rules of the universe is that happy employees make happy customers.

Give your employees a reason to smile, and they’ll make you smile at the top and bottom lines.