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Guest blog: Recognising “subtle signs” are the difference between success and failure

The benefits of a high conversion rate are significant and include operational efficiency and improved margins because less money needs to be invested in marketing.

Unfortunately, too many advisers and planners believe marketing is only about creating new leads forgetting to analyse, and then improve, their conversion rate. 

Earlier this year Becca Timmins wrote about why recognising “subtle signs” are the difference between success and failure. In his first guest blog for us, James Woodfall of Raise Your EI continues that theme.

Have you ever had this experience? You’re in a restaurant, the staff come over and ask,

“How’s the food?”

You reply,

“Yeah, good thanks”

And, when they are out of earshot you turn to the person you are with and say, “We’re not coming here again”.

Your clients don’t always tell you what’s on their mind

We don’t always say what’s on our mind, and that’s ok. It might feel awkward, maybe also a bit rude and confronting to tell the staff you think the chef lacks basic culinary skills, although that might be what you are thinking.

So, do clients and prospective clients always tell you what’s on their mind? Probably not. If they aren’t getting their grievances out in the open, that means they are left to ruminate on them. A small issue left unaddressed might leave a prospective client with an uneasy feeling that means they never come on board. With an existing client, a small issue might grow into a larger problem that has the risk of derailing the relationship.

If your clients don’t always speak what’s on their mind, are there subtle signs you may have missed that can give you clues something is awry? Yes.

In this blog, I’m going to give you a few things to look out for and a response pattern to help elicit information.

The discovery of the “social smile”

In 1862, Duchenne de Boulogne studied facial expressions using a rather interesting method, having found a man who through nerve damage could not feel pain in his face. The muscles in the face were stimulated using electricity to investigate which combination of muscles create our facial expressions.

Duchenne de Boulogne noticed that to produce a genuine enjoyment smile, it involved not only the muscles which pull the lip corners back (zygomatic major) but also the outer muscles of the eye (orbicularis oculi). The muscle around the eye is shaped like a ring and when it contracts, it causes the upper cheeks to raise and the eye cover fold (the bit between your eye and your eyebrow) to lower covering the eye.

Later studies by Paul Ekman linked the genuine enjoyment smile with the experience of the emotion, by scanning the brain whilst expressions were spontaneously performed. The brains positive emotion centres lit up on the scan only when the genuine expression was produced. However, it was noted that there are times when we experience negative emotion that we smile with just the lip corners.

We have more than one smile, and they communicate different things

So we have two smiles, a real one involving the muscles around the eyes, and a second one which involves only the lip corners being pulled back. Duchenne de Boulonge noted this difference too.

And it’s hard to fake. Very few people can voluntarily contract the muscles around the eye to replicate the genuine expression.

Try it in the mirror. If find you are squinting, that’s not it, think of something funny or summon up an enjoyable memory and see if you can produce the expression spontaneously. You’ll notice the difference.

Why do we have two smiles, and what is the second smile used for?

The term for the smile involving only the lip corners is the “social smile”. And, we use it all the time when we communicate with others. It’s used when we want to be polite, when we want to hide another emotion by masking with a smile and there’s also the “grin-and-bear-it” smile. We probably use the social smile far more often to communicate with others, and it is not linked to the experience of genuine enjoyment.

Compare the two photos below, which do you think is the real vs social smile?

Noticing genuine enjoyment in client meetings is a good thing.

It’s a buying signal for one. Some of the triggers for producing the expression are pleasure, relief, amusement, excitement, gratitude or contentment. These are all good signs you’re meeting your clients’ needs.

Relief is quite a common one from my experience; that moment you reveal the financial plan for your client which suggests they are going to be ok based on your conservative assumptions.

If you spot genuine happiness in a meeting – ask for a referral!

Spotting signs of genuine smiling is also a great time to ask for a testimonial or referral. The client is happy with you and the work you are doing – seize the moment!

Pay attention to the eyes when people smile as that is what will give it away. The upper cheek raise causes “crows feet” in the outside of the eye, or for those of us who have those all the time, they deepen. Also look at the upper eye, less of it will be visible. When we smile with our mouth, these subtle signs are missing, suggesting that the emotion of enjoyment isn’t present. When you are with a client, see if you can get a genuine enjoyment smile out of them, as then you have an idea of what their face looks like when they smile for comparison.

If clients and prospects regularly display the social smile rather the genuine enjoyment smile, it tells us a couple of things. But we need to pay attention to the context and hypothesise first. Is the client being polite, or telling us they are happy when they are not, or are they experiencing another emotion and using a smile to hide that from us? The link between these may be dissatisfaction.

Gut feelings are valuable, pay attention to them

Even if you can’t spot what’s going on straight away, you may find you have a gut feeling. We pick up on the subtle signs even without training, and our gut might indicate that something isn’t right or the client is holding something back. In those moments, trust your gut.

Your client may be unhappy with something they are keeping hidden from you. If it’s not resolved that may be all it takes for a prospect to never contact you again.

Lead with empathy

If you spot the social smile, and it doesn’t appear to fit the context or your gut is trying to tell you something, then use the following response pattern:


The first step is to acknowledge the signs you’ve noticed. You could say, “I sense that you might have some concerns.”


Seek to understand the root of the issue by asking open-ended questions. For example, “What’s been on your mind?” or “What aspects are you feeling uncertain about?”.

Take a moment 

Allow a brief pause for the client to collect their thoughts. Holding space for the client shows you are ready to listen. Silence can often prompt clients to open up further.


After the client has expressed their concerns, respond thoughtfully. Address their specific points with empathy. For example, “I understand why that might be concerning. Let’s work through this together.”


Summarise the client’s main concerns to ensure you have understood correctly. This can be done using their own words. Check for any other concerns the client may have.


Finally, provide reassurance by outlining the steps you will take to address their concerns.

Sometimes clients need a gentle push to say what’s on their mind, and if you start by acknowledging, you demonstrate you are there to help, listen and empathise. When you respond in this way, you are inviting criticism and demonstrating to the client it’s a safe space.

Back to our restaurant example, if a member of staff came over and said they sensed something might be wrong, you might feel more comfortable saying you didn’t enjoy the food. They might offer an apology and ask if there is anything they can do, or offer a gesture of goodwill. And, any of those actions would likely result in you leaving in a far more positive way than if you had kept your grievances to yourself, even if the problem couldn’t be resolved.

You still might not go back, and that’s ok.

Responding to emotions builds trust faster

When we are careful with, and respond appropriately to, others’ emotion signals, trust grows. Paying attention to subtle signs and responding appropriately is one of the reasons emotional intelligence is linked with increased client retention, referrals and new business. In this article we have looked at how paying attention to a smile can give you an opportunity to capture a recommendation and testimonial, or get concerns out in the open so you can move past them.

If you would like to know more about emotional intelligence and how it can help you and your business, consider joining me in in June for a 3-day virtual workshop where we will take a deep dive into emotions and behaviour analysis.

Details can be found here:

If you have any questions or would like to discuss in-house training, reach out to me at and let’s talk.

References and additional reading:

Duchenne, G.-B. (1862). Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine, ou analyse électro-physiologique de l’expression des passions. Paris: Jules Renouard.

Ekman, P., Davidson, R. J. & Friesen, W V. (1990). The Duchenne smile: emotional expression and brain physiology II. Journal of personality and social psychology, 58(2), 342-353. DOI:

Ekman, P. (2003). Emotions Revealed. Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

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