‘It’s time to embrace the smiley culture’ – Iqbal Wahhab

Iqbal Wahhab - smiley culture

Business owners who don’t smile and don’t make their employees happy may find their customers frown back at them too, says Roast Restaurant boss Iqbal Wahhab

Last year, I was asked to give a closing address to students graduating from the London School of Hospitality and Tourism. I made my subject one they probably wouldn’t have been taught – the importance of smiling.

Hotel receptionists, I said, are an obvious case in point. But it’s just as valid if you’re in the back of a kitchen chopping onions or reducing a sauce because you will enjoy making the dish and your smile will carry through into it. The customer, in turn, is more likely to be happy eating it.

We’ve decided this year not to go through the hugely laborious process of applying again for our Gold Standard in Investors in People. We’d rather spend time making our spaces a happy environment to work in than win a badge for doing so.

Before he became prime minister, David Cameron talked about a Happiness Index, using tools that measured general contentment beyond how much money we make and whether GDP is rising. I haven’t seen much evidence of this since. A cynic might note that income and GDP are rising so there may now be less need to press that button.

Increasingly, managers tell me people looking to work with us, or indeed anyone else, are less motivated by money than they used to be and more attracted by flexible working hours, how well they are treated and the values of the company itself. People coming for interviews actually ask to see the Roast Foundation table, from which all profits go to charity.

Years ago I saw a documentary about how TGI Friday’s trained people. One by one, new recruits would stand on a stage and amuse the others with a joke, a story, even a song. The compelling logic was that if they could entertain colleagues, they could entertain customers. This, and the brilliantly simple idea of waiting staff kneeling to be eye-level with the diner, has helped make it a £220m company.

Pret A Manger has taken this to another level. Last year, it engaged customers in its alternative loyalty programme by randomly giving some free coffees. Now, it’s done that thing every public-facing business should strive to achieve – turning a customer into a fan.

Its new ‘Make Someone Smile’ campaign means the recipient of a free coffee gets a special sleeve on their carton to pass on to someone else, friend or stranger, so they too can have a free coffee. The hope is they will post the results on social media.

Deciding who to give the sleeve to is random; the idea was far from it. George Fieldman, a psychologist who has researched random acts of kindness at Oxford, says: “Altruism – the act of doing something for somebody else at a cost to yourself – has a fascinating effect. It can help us feel better about ourselves… it can create authentic feelings of joy; not just for the person on the receiving end, but also for the person doing the giving.”

Twitter and Facebook, natural domains for Pret customers, have seen a rush of films, pictures and elaborate cartoons expressing how a tiny gesture has had a huge impact.

Retailers who don’t get this need to recalibrate their thinking. To be out of touch with what enthuses your customers is to dangerously miss a trick. Business owners who aren’t happy and don’t smile, and don’t make their employees happy and smiley, may find their customers frown back at them.

The only team meetings I never miss are the marketing ones. That’s where we encourage creativity, bounce ideas, laugh at the daftest ones (usually mine) and find new ways to engage existing customers better, as well as seeking out new ones. So, grumpy business folk, learn from Pret – and smell the coffee.

Iqbal Wahhab OBE is the founder of Roast. 



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About author

Iqbal Wahhab

Iqbal Wahhab

Iqbal Wahhab is a restaurateur who drives social impacts to the core of his businesses. The founder of The Cinnamon Club and Roast is chair or patron of a variety of social projects and is planning more restaurants this year.

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