Putting a Face on Customer Loyalty

Why adding photos at multiple touch points builds customer trust

Sometimes companies can form stronger customer relationships by doing the simplest things. Adding smiling, welcoming images of key sales and support people in online, mobile and e-mail communications sends an effective, subliminal message of warmth and comfort. When business leaders set the stage visually with a more mindful customer experience, they take the first step to produce trusting, loyal and profitable relationships.

Subconscious drivers

babyHumans are hardwired to recognize faces. Babies as young as three months can do it, well before they can talk.[1] Scientists say a part of the brain called the fusiform face area (FFA) specializes in facial recognition, integrating information from multiple, lower-level visual processing centers. The FFA is connected to the amygdala, a structure responsible for encoding emotional responses. Studies show a developmental link between the FFA and the amygdala,[2] suggesting our ability to associate specific faces with experiences, such as a mother’s face to nourishment, is essential for early survival. Once formed, our facial recognition capabilities last throughout our lives. Our skills become so attuned that we easily see faces in inanimate objects such as the front grilles of automobiles, rock formations or potato chips.[3]

We derive social cues from facial expressions. In as little as 1/10 of a second, the brain interprets faces and makes an evaluation of someone’s approachability and trustworthiness.[4] The eyes and mouth, in particular, convey emotional states. Scientists have determined that people subconsciously associate attractive, smiling faces with “approach” signals and threatening visages with “avoid” signals.[5] Given its life-or-death implications, reflexively ascertaining emotional state from appearance is likely another important adaptation.

How we interpret faces influences our actions. For example, when people view trusting faces, they tend to exhibit trusting behaviors. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging techniques, neuroscientists have discovered that displaying the faces of cooperative game players activates the amygdala and striatum, triggering expectations of reward and future exchange value. Trustworthy appearance subliminally affects cooperation in social economic tasks,[6] impacts voting in elections,[7] and influences wagering in poker games.[8] Incredibly, just glancing at face-like objects has the same effect. When subjects were presented with two dots above a middle dot (a minimal “face” image of eyes and a mouth) they were three times more likely to donate money to other players of an economics game.[9]

People generalize trustworthiness, which in turn impacts long-term behavior. Subconsciously humans associate facial cues (a smile) with stable dispositions (being friendly), meaning that if people look trustworthy to us, we assume they are. Scientists think such snap judgments are based on cognitive misattribution, confusing momentary states with enduring attributes.[10] In addition, our natural confirmation bias means initial impressions tend to linger unless experiences contradict our assumptions.

Trustworthy imaging

combined photos2Studies have also shown that in business, trustworthiness is linked to customer loyalty,[11] so it follows that creating a trusting customer experience pays economic returns. Presenting video or static images of friendly, approachable sales and support staff early in the relationship helps form affective bonds. When companies signal “approach” instead of “avoid” to their customers’ subconscious minds and then follow the initial impression with consistent actions, trustworthiness is reinforced. This, in turn, leads to greater customer retention and loyalty.

Most companies display images of their senior executives in the “About Us” section on their websites, and many small companies show photos of all their team members, but organizations routinely overlook other opportunities:

  • Including photos in e-mail signatures, a task that literally takes less than a minute to set up in Outlook or Gmail
  • Adding an image of the responding agent or salesperson on pop-up internet chat sessions, enabled by companies like SnapEngage
  • Showing pictures of the customer’s assigned account team on the login landing page or in the “My Account” section online
  • Featuring talking support technicians in YouTube help videos like those used by Warby Parker
  • Conducting web conferencing calls using ReadyTalk, GoToMeeting or Google Hangouts
  • Using video e-mail marketing technologies like BombBomb to communicate a wide range of sales and support topics
  • Providing real time video support, imitating Amazon’s revolutionary Kindle Fire “Mayday” capability

Imaging key personnel involved in the customer life cycle is a simple and effective way to enrich interactions. All it takes a few minutes and a mobile device. Featuring friendly faces creates moments of connection, the first of five critical moments in the customer experience. When managers consider the psychology of both effective (solving problems) and affective (strengthening attachment) interactions, they create more mindful customer experiences, increasing trust and driving customer loyalty to new levels.


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[1] Goldstein, B. (2013). Sense and Perception. Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning. p. 91

[2] Guyer, A. et al (July 2010).  A Developmental Examination of Amygdala Response to Facial Expressions.  Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 20 (9): 1565–82.

[3] Ichikawa, H., Kanazawa, S., and Yamaguchi, M. Finding a face in a face-like object. Perception. 2011; 40(4)

[4] Adolps, R., Tranel, D., Damasio, A. The human amygdala in social judgment. Nature 393 470-474 (4 June 1998)

[5] Todorov, A., Said, C., Engell, A. and Oosterhof, N. Understanding evaluation of faces on social dimensions. Trends in Cognitive Sciences Vol.12 No.12, pp. 455-460

[6] Smith, F., DeBruine, L., Jones, B., Krupp, D., Welling, L., and Conway, C. Attractiveness qualifies the effect of observation on trusting behavior in an economic game. Evolution and Human Behavior. 2009; 30:393–397

[7] Little, A., Roberts, S.C., Jones, B., and DeBruine, L. The perception of attractiveness and trustworthiness in male faces affects hypothetical voting decisions differently in wartime and peacetime scenarios. Quarterly journal of experimental psychology (2006). 2012; 65(10)

[8] Schlicht, E., Shimojo, S. Human wagering behavior depends on opponents’ faces. PloS one. 2010; 5(7)

[9] Rigdon, M. et al (2009) Minimal social cues in the dictator game. Journal of Economic Psychology 30 (3) 358-367

[10] Secord, P.F. (1958) Facial features and inference processes in interpersonal perception. In Person Perception and Interpersonal Behavior (Tagiuri, R. and Petrullo, L., eds), pp. 300–315, Stanford University Press

[11] Ruyter, K., Moorman, L., Lemmink, J.: Antecedents of Commitment and Trust in Customer–Supplier Relationships in High Technology Markets. Industrial Marketing Management 30, 271–286 (2001)