Behind the masks:…Front line facial expressions in the pandemic

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HALM
J.N. Halm is a columnist with the B&FT

When I wrote “OF FACE MASKS AND HIDDEN SMILES: Working the Magic in the Pandemic” exactly a year ago, I had no idea that the pandemic was going to last this long. It has been more than a year since the world was first introduced to this devastating virus. A year on, and we are still grappling with the disastrous effects of this minuscule but yet formidable foe.

The premise of that article was that though nose masks were going to be around for as long as the pandemic persisted, their presence was not going to affect the need for genuine smiles. This was because genuine smiles, or the Duchenne smiles as they are known, were detected from the wrinkles that form around the edges of the individual’s eyes and not the one’s lips. Therefore, so long as nose masks were leaving the sides of the eyes exposed, customers would easily see when the one behind the mask is smiling and whether the smile behind the mask is genuine or not.

On the one-year anniversary of that article, it is a bit disturbing that the pandemic is still around and true to my projections, the ubiquitous nose mask has become the most lasting image of this pandemic. Coming in various designs, colours, sizes and materials, the nose mask is definitely leaving a mark on this pandemic.

There are several reasons why the mask has become such a powerful symbol of the times we find ourselves in. For one, it can be found almost everywhere. Nose masks are being hawked on the streets. They are being sold in almost every mom-and-pop shop in neighbourhoods all around the country. In many places, they are even being given out for free.

Additionally, these masks are not that expensive. The surgical masks are being peddled for just GH¢1.00 on the streets—affordable for the average Ghanaian. A well-designed mask, made of a combination of cloth and even leather, costs a little more, though. However, that is still within the means of those who can afford it.

By and large, everyone is able to get their hands on a face mask—and many people do wear these masks in public, especially if they are required. The “No Mask: No Entry” signs posted at the entrances of many businesses is doing a lot of good in that direction. People are genuinely worried about catching the virus and so would bear with the inconvenience of wearing masks.

It is important to note that although the face mask still allows us to know if one is genuinely smiling or not, there are still ways in which the face mask affects the interactions between individuals.  And if that interaction is between a customer-facing employee and the customer, then the role and importance of the face masks becomes more pronounced. The truth is that the genuine smile is just one of several ways by which customer service employees (CSEs) communicate with customers. There are other ways by which the mask can affect communication between people.

It is a fact that communication is the lifeblood of every relationship. Without constant communication, relationships suffer and might eventually die out. As alluded to earlier, facial expressions play a very critical role in communication, and by extension, in creating and maintaining relationships. It has been proven that the right facial expressions influence customer satisfaction. Facial expressions also have an effect on the perception of quality by a customer. Customers would have positive word-of-mouth communications about an experience when the front line employee uses the right facial expression. The right facial expressions have even been known to get customers to pay more for a service. In a nutshell, one can confidently state that facial expressions have a lot to do with the profitability of a business.

However, we find ourselves in a time where facial expressions are greatly hindered by a need to stay safe. Face/nose masks are hiding a greater portion of our faces and thus obscuring a majority of our facial expressions. However, with or without face masks, business must go on. Customer-handling employees cannot use the wearing of face masks as an excuse not to communicate with customers.

One positive way to communicate from behind the face masks is what I touched on a year ago—the generation of genuine emotions. For one, it is important for CSEs to know that customers expect a display of positive emotions from those who serve them. Customers do not expect the CSE serving them to go about with a frown on the face. Therefore, a cheerful outlook is a part of what the customer is spending his or her money on—and he or she must get that.

It is true that when the CSE is genuinely excited about serving the customer, the emotions brighten the one’s face and customers are able to recognise that the one is being genuine, even from behind the masks. Customers, in turn, respond in kind to the emotions they read from the faces of front line employees. If the customer believes the CSE is angry, then chances are the customer might respond with anger.

Studies upon studies have proven that, regardless of culture, emotions that are displayed on our faces have universal interpretations. The human race has so evolved and mastered the art of reading people’s feelings from their faces that we are able to even use very small clues to accurately gauge what is going on in someone’s mind. A little muscular twitch on a person face, a raised eyebrow, squinted eyes, dilated pupils, etc. and one betrays whatever is going on inside the one’s mind. In short, the human face is a very rich source of information about the emotions of a person.

This is why front line staff must resort to the techniques of Deep Acting, as opposed to Surface Acting, when dealing with customers. By changing one’s emotions from deep within, regardless of the prevailing conditions, a front line employee is able to display genuinely-positive emotions under very unpleasant conditions. Through Deep Acting, an individual is able to maintain a pleasant disposition even in the face of the greatest provocation.

With or without the face masks, customers are able to detect when the emotions behind the masks are genuine and they responded accordingly. It has been shown that a display of positive emotions by CSE causes customers to also act positively in several ways. Some of the benefits include improving the rapport between the customer and the CSE, increasing the loyalty of the customer to the organisation or brand, customers increasingly adhering to the advice of the CSE and even causing customers to give the service a higher quality rating.

Another way to compensate for the shortfall in facial expressions is for customer service employees to improve on their verbal communication. This is akin to what happens in football commentary on radio and that on television. The lack of visuals on radio means that the commentator is forced to use a lot more words—to describe a lot more of what is happening on the field to listeners. Commentary on TV is a lot less loquacious since the viewers are already witnessing the game. What a TV commentator therefore does is to complement what is being seen.

Behind the face mask, a customer service employee must become more of a radio commentator—ensuring that he or she says what must be said, in the most courteous and professional manner, taking nothing for granted. For instance, it is known that product knowledge is one of the things that impresses customers when dealing with CSEs. With the mask on, it is crucial that the CSE displays such knowledge when needed. Customers expect their needs to be understood and to be provided for. Therefore, a front line employee is expected to be able to communicate to the customer that his or her needs will be met.

Still on the importance of verbal communications, it is important that CSEs learn to project their voice when speaking from behind the masks. The mask tends to muffle one’s voice so it is important that when speaking, one does so a bit louder than one would normally have done. It can be quite frustrating for the customer if he or she has to keep asking the CSE to repeat what was said.

Vaccine or no vaccine, it is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to take a second look at many of the things we used to take for granted a couple of years ago. Who would have thought, three years ago, that a day was coming when we would all be wearing face masks around town? But here we are, more than a year after the first case was reported—standing a few metres apart and trying to communicate from behind the masks!

Front line employees must be made to understand that for as long as they have their masks on, they must find ways of communicating effectively to their customers. Inconveniencing as wearing it might be, the face mask cannot be used as an excuse for poor communication. Customers would not be too forgiving if the face mask is used as an excuse for poor service. After all, these customers are also having to wear those same masks.

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