There’s a Reason Why Eye Contact and Smiling Improve the Experience

Simple gestures that communicate attentiveness and a willingness to establish a personal connection are something every library worker can deliver on. When we fail to do so, particularly when there are technology distractions, it’s a missed opportunity to establish trust with community members.

It is almost a cliche for good customer service in libraries.

Smile. Make eye contact. Signal to the community member that you are engaged and eager to help.

We want our community members to feel like they are the most important person in the world in that moment.

Let’s treat them as if they are world famous.

Have you heard that one before? It sounds good. It certainly would communicate to a staff member that their job is to give each community member their undivided attention, to allow no distractions to interfere and through our verbal and non-verbal gestures to deliver the best possible experience.

And if we do that well, again and again, they will return and tell friends about the good vibe they get at the library.

I stole that “treat them as if they are world famous” experience statement.

It’s actually the experiential brand statement that the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle came up with when they were working with Joe Michelli on their statement. That’s how they wanted the experience to feel for the customer. That’s the experience they decided to deliver on – and we all know how that turned out.

Of course, it helps if you can come up with something clever and interactive, like having your customers throw and catch fish. That doesn’t translate particularly well to a library.

So what can librarians do to treat people as if they are world famous? How about more eye contact, smiles and nodding.

How would that make a difference you ask?

According to Baruch Sachs, in the article “How Smiling and Nodding Affects Our Interactions“, it can make a significant difference and leave community members perceiving library workers as more trustworthy and deserving of a relationship. That could turn a routine transaction into a memorable experience.

Sachs shares his own experience with smiles and nods as critical elements of an interactive exchange. But what he’s learned about these actions is more than just anecdotal. “There is plenty of research out there to back up the notion that our small gestures are important—not least in the area of building trust. Sometimes building trust takes just a smile and a nod.”

With computers, tablets, handheld devices and other distractions at our library service points, it’s easy for library workers to fail to quickly and adequately acknowledge another person’s presence. According to the research Sachs references, when subjects in a social experiment received no acknowledgement from a stranger they felt disconnected and rejected. It only takes a small trigger or gesture, such as a smile, nod or eye contact to avoid communicating rejection and establishing a foundation for rapport.

That sounds like the exact sort of aura I want to give when a stranger approaches me to ask a question, whether it’s just giving directions or assisting with a more complex research question. In a way, these simple gestures are a microcosm of user experience for the entire library organization. The totality of a library user experience fails if it is unexceptional at any service touch point.

If I, as an individual library worker, fail to connect with a community member through my lack of appropriate gestures or inattentiveness, then everything else I do from that point on in the interaction could fail as well. My smile, eye contact or welcoming nod gets things off to the right start by building that basic trust needed for a relationship to happen – even if that relationship exists only for the time in which we engage at the service point.

Library workers in public service contact points need to recognize that their behavior has a significant and contagious impact on others. That’s why our service principles document, in the “five steps of service” starts off with “make eye contact; give a greeting; share your name” and then in step two states “be in the moment; eliminate distractions”. These reinforce Sachs’ message about establishing trust (which just happens to be step three).

Delivering on a well-designed library user experience is no easy task. Simple gestures like eye contact and smiling, on the other hand, are among the easiest things any library worker can do to contribute to the totality of the library experience.

Making Eye Contact Makes a Difference

What’s the first thing you do when making a personal connection with a community member? If it’s not eye contact then you need to rethink your steps of service. Librarians should not underestimate the importance that good eye contact plays in getting a service transaction off to the right start at every personal touch point in the library.

It’s the start of the customer journey for the community member who needs to find their way into your collection and the expert guidance you bring to it. Think about what’s when community members approach you in need of assistance. Are your eyes fixed to a computer screen when someone approaches? Do you only slowly shift your gaze away from the text or images on the screen to that person waiting for your help? If that’s the first step in the journey then it could be getting service delivery off to a bad start.

According to a study published in the journal Environment and Behavior, researchers at Cornell University found the if eyes were placed on consumer products (e.g., the the Trix Rabbit on the cereal box), and manipulated so that the gaze connected with human eyes perusing the shelves it could lead to that product being selected over competitors. Researcher Brian Wansink said that “Making eye contact even with a character on a cereal box inspired powerful feelings of connection”. If a cartoon character on a cereal box, using no more than a gaze, can connect and ignite a potential relationship, you certainly can.

Need further proof? Just go back to the Great Retail Shopping Experience in North America Study, research into what makes the best possible user experience. In interviews with hundreds of consumers, the Study found that five key components combine to add up to great user experiences. One of those five was engagement. Making immediate eye contact is a simple yet powerful way to show you are ready and willing to get engaged in a service transaction.

Kate Murphy, writing about the study for the New York Times, in “Psst. Look Over Here”, says to think of eye contact as a “cognitive jump-start” that occurs when you lock eyes with another person. In addition, eye contact may help you to personally contribute to the improvement of the library experience. Eye contact is proven to make us more socially aware and empathetic, keys to building relationships. When we look away at our e-mail or get too focused on the screen, it can degrade the connection. So if a service transaction requires you to do some computer work, be sure to look back to the community member every few moments to give some reassuring eye contact. Murphy reports that research as far back as the 1980s indicates that people who make eye contact are perceived as more likable and trustworthy.

Add it all up and everything points to the importance of making eye contact as one of your first steps in connecting with community members, whether it’s in the primary service zone, your office, the stacks or even random encounters in the community. It’s a simple thing every library worker can do to make the library experience that much better.

One other piece of advice. Try not to let your eye contact turn into a stare. That could be just a little bit creepy.