Serving Up the Smile Factor: 5 Ways to Leverage Likeability and Increase Lunchroom Sales

serving school lunch Research shows that people prefer to say “yes” to individuals they know and like1,2. Likability is the best predictor of success for ad campaigns3 and has been a consistent indicator of the outcome of presidential elections4.  In the workplace, professionals say likeability is more important than competence when choosing a co-worker to team up with for a project5.

It goes to reason that what works in the world of marketing, politics and the work place also applies to the business of selling school nutrition.  Studies show that, in general, students participate in a school nutrition program because of the staff6.  Foodservice directors and managers as well as students see friendliness as an important component for creating a nutrition program’s brand personality6.  In the private sector, friendliness of the front-line staff is a crucial component of customer service, sometimes even trumping the tangible parts of hospitality7,8,9,10.

In his bestselling book Influence: Science and Practice, Professor Emeritus Robert Cialdini outlines five factors that are associated with increased likeability11: Physical attractiveness, similarity, praise, association, and familiarity.  Below are some suggestions for leveraging these factors to increase the likability of school food service and increase student participation. 

Provide service with a smile.  One of the best ways to improve appearance and attractiveness is by adding a smile. Smiling is associated with many traits linked to likeability, such as being open, conscientious, extroverted, agreeable and emotionally stable12.  Look for ways you can help staff smile more and they in turn will pass that on13 to students, parents and school staff which will increase likeability and eventually profitability!

Like them first. Brain science shows that the simple experience of being liked activates the “reward” center of our brains14. Joe Girard was a natural at “liking them first.”  He holds the Guinness World Record for being the world’s greatest salesman15.  On average, he sold six or more cars a day for years when most car salespeople sell four or five automobiles in a month.  People would wait a week for an appointment to buy a car from him.  What was his secret? Truly liking his customers and letting them know it.  In addition to doing other likeable things, every month he would send a card to his customers with a different picture and greeting, but the card would always say “I like you.” He even gave out buttons that said “I like you.” Seek out and act upon opportunities to show your staff, students and parents how much you like them.

Persuade the Parents to Increase Participation.  Being perceived as likeable to parents may be even more important than being perceived as likeable by students.  Many experts consider parents to be the primary target market for the National School Lunch Program16. Especially for younger students, participation is strongly influenced by parental encouragement.  In order to increase parental involvement, try creating a committee with students, parents, teachers, and food workers to help make decisions6. By allowing parents to interact with the food service staff and give their opinions, they will feel more comfortable with the program.

Put a face on your program.  Let everyone know how likeable you, your staff and your school nutrition program are!  Create colorful, personalized “Meet Jane Doe” flyers to post in the front office or other places parents interface with the school.  This was one of the influence tools used by the Chickasaw Nation Women, Infant and Children (WIC) USDA Special Projects grant that helped boost breastfeeding rates by 20% in just a few months17, 18, 19.  Post to your website and make posters to place in the hall.  Consider printing one staff feature on the back of menus with a link to your website and an invitation to “meet the rest of our fabulous staff that nourish your children at school.” The idea is to increase familiarity with multiple exposures to staff pictures, drawing out similarities and offering praise.  Have staff use pictures of themselves in their personal lives with children, pets, and having fun with friends and family.  Find 5-6 questions they can answer honestly that illustrate similarities with school families. Include at least one question and answer that praises parents or their children.  To also activate the persuasion principle of authority, include some information about years of service, credentials, or related degrees. Click here to see an example poster. 

Make an appearance.  In addition to familiarity, association with positive experiences increases likeability.  Attend school events yourself or ask staff if you can schedule them to attend. This can help make a connection between your school food service operation and likeable people, fun events and good tasting food.  Provide samples of some of your great tasting, healthier recipes at family nights, back-to-school events, carnivals, PTA meetings or any other fun family event.  It can sometimes be difficult to staff these events, but a little extra effort to move out of the cafeteria and into the bigger school community also helps students, parents and teachers become more familiar with you and your staff. And don’t forget to bring all of your “Meet Our Likeable Staff” flyers!


Zena Edwards Washington State University Extension


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  11. Cialdini, R. (2009). Influence: Science and Practice.  Pearson/Allyn & Bacon, Boston.
  12. Naumann, L., Vazire, S., Rentfrow, P. and Gosling, S. (2009). Personality judgments based on physical appearance. Personality and Social Psychology Bullletin. 35(12), 1661-1671.
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  14. Davey, C., Allen, N., Harrison, B., Dwyer, D., Yϋcel, M. (2010). Being liked activates primary reward and midline self-related brain regions. Human Brain Mapping. 31, 660-668.
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  17. Tapping into the Power of Influence. USDA Women, Infant and Children WIC Works Sharing Center. Available at:
  18. Key Theories, Applications, and Processes Related to Training WIC Staff. USDA Women, Infant and Children WIC Works Sharing Center. Available at:
  19. We Influence Change website. Chickasaw Nation WIC. 

For More Information

“Harnessing the Science of Persuasion.” Harvard Business Review, October 2001. 

Sanders,T: The Likeability Factor: How to Boost Your L-Factor and Achieve Your Life’s Dreams. Three Rivers Press, New York (2005).