OXFORD — New research published in the Journal of Marketing Management suggests salespeople must be able to read both facial cues and body languages to achieve great service and customer satisfaction.

The report , “The value of knowing what customers really want: The impact of salesperson ability to read non-verbal cues of affect on service quality,” was authored by Nancy M. Puccinelli, Susan A. Andrzejewski, Ereni Markos, Tracy Noga and Scott Motyka of the University of Oxford’s  Saïd Business School. Its conclusion contradicts much of today’s standard sales training.

Many companies insist that their sales staff engage customers in conversation, offer advice, and attempt to cross-sell or upsell. But customers are not always in the mood for this, according to the report, even though most will try to deal with the salesperson courteously. If the salesperson can read the customer’s body language, he can see beyond the polite smile and realize, for example, that he or she is in a tearing hurry and just wants to be served as quickly as possible. The study showed that salespeople who respond to non-verbal cues and correctly judge the mood of the customer are perceived by the customer to be offering excellent service.

But the researchers discovered in their experiments that this positive perception was not shared by observers, such as sales managers or trainers, of the interaction. In fact, observers of interactions in which a salesperson correctly interpreted and acted on the customer’s non-verbal cues saw the salesperson as delivering poor service.

“These findings have important implications for the evaluation of salespeople by managers,” said Puccinelli. “Managers may be undervaluing some of their most effective employees. We recommend that managers evaluate sales staff by interacting with them as customers.”

The researchers also suggest that this ability to read non-verbal cues should be among the top criteria for selecting employees who interact with customers in all kinds of organizations. They recommend that employers should use tools such as the PONS (Profile of Nonverbal Sensitivity) test during the employee screening stage.

“Retailers that consider the positive impact of a salesperson's ability to read customers' moods can select and train salespeople more effectively to deliver quality service,” Puccinelli said. “This can provide a distinctive opportunity to delight customers and achieve competitive advantage.”