How a smile can make your day

16:00, Feb 02 2013
WARM HAND: 'Whether they are international people or New Zealanders, I treat them all the same; same attention, same smile, same warm handshake.

Kevin Tautau’s handshake has to be one of the strongest in Auckland. It’s also one of the most welcoming; just ask any of the hundreds of people enveloped by his gentle, paw-like grasp every day as they pass through his patch at the front of the SkyCity Grand Hotel.

Tautau is a soldier of service, a man on the front line of a luxury hotel, nestled beneath an iconic concrete landmark. In his role as commissionaire he is often one of the first faces visitors see, setting the tone not just for a stay in the hotel, but New Zealand. 

“I don’t see it as pressure because I love what I do. And when I see people, whether they are international people or New Zealanders, I treat them all the same; same attention, same smile, same warm handshake.”

first impressions
ROCK STAR: Kevin Tautau likes to make everyone he greets feel special.

Tautau is one of many Kiwis whose ability to win – or lose – someone’s trust, attention or credit card can be decided in a heartbeat.

Remember Pride and Prejudice? How horribly wrong Elizabeth’s initial take of Mr Darcy’s disposition was? Remember how it took her an age (and a sopping white shirt if Colin Firth is our leading man) to realise he actually wasn’t a bad guy but, in fact, a rather lovely one?

First impressions are lasting impressions, as the saying goes. And sometimes they can affect much more than the fate of your love life. Last year, for example, one industry survey found less than half of the respondents were happy with the level of customer service in New Zealand. In the workplace, what to wear on that first day is as crucial as where you choose to sit in the staff cafeteria.

And this month, the nation’s newly minted five-year-olds will discover the importance of “front line” behaviour when they start school for the first time. (An Education Ministry spokesperson estimated that last year in February, 14,847 five and six-year-old students – mostly five – had their first ever day of school.) 


“If children have fun on their first day, says Julie Walls, “they want to come back on the second.” As a new entrant teacher, Walls has the power to encourage a life-long love of learning from the moment a child walks into her classroom. She knows the importance of a positive first impression.

“It sets up their whole attitude to school. So if they enjoy their first few weeks at school, if they are happy and want to be here, then they will learn.”

The teacher at Rangiora’s Southbrook School has welcomed more new students than she can count since stepping in front of the blackboard 25 years ago. And while she says every child is different, there are a few ways to make that first day a little less terrifying.

“It’s just a delightful, exciting time, but it’s a huge learning adjustment. It is really important to welcome them in and to have the routines all in place.”

Everything is set out for the students when they arrive on their fifth birthday: a name tag hangs on the wall, marking the spot for their school bag; their desk is set up for them and many of them have spent time in the classroom on school visits. 

They have a buddy to help them navigate through the initial awkwardness of morning tea and lunchtime, and every day there is time dedicated to something Walls dubs “free play”.

“That’s where those conversations start. School is quite structured – you are right into that learning – so we give them that free time to start those lovely conversations.

“If you’ve got a shy little poppet, it just takes them time and we make sure we look out for them.”

It is an attempt to make everything as easy as possible, as soon as possible – for parents as well. “They’re nervous too, so we reassure and include them in the process because if they are really positive about the start of school, then it’s going to be a good experience for everyone. It can be hard – we’re mums as well, so hopefully we know what it’s like.”


When Tautau, 54, greets people, he wants them to feel like a rock star. So along with a massive smile and that handshake, the top hat-wearing commissionaire has another talent up his sleeve. As if by magic, he knows – and remembers – the name of every person he greets. It makes quite the impression – first, second, or otherwise. He insists he’s not a mind reader, just a man with a system that works.

When he meets you, he’ll say your name and then repeat it a few times while talking to you to help create a mental picture – it’s something you notice only when you are aware of the end game. Then, once you are out of his eye line, Tautau jots your name down on a list with everyone else that he has met that day, and then he reviews the final list every night.

“It just takes practice – use it or lose it, as they say. And I like to use it.” He smiles, but he knows that extra effort pays off; he knows what he is creating for visitors and for his employer.

“It leaves a really good impression on guests, and then they will go and tell their friends about it – ‘Oh, I met this really cool guy and he remembers your name. The guy with the big smile, big handshake, big hug.’

“I had this lady once – she was a guest in the house – and she came back with five friends and said, ‘Aw Kev, these five ladies here, they all want a hug. Can you give them one?’ I love it, and they enjoy it. It makes them feel special, you know?”

Tautau has always worked in hospitality; he is the friendly face who needs to know everything: how long it will take to get to the airport, or what time the Waiheke ferry sails, as well as where to eat, drink and be seen. But he believes on top of all of that, the best, and first, thing he can offer people is a smile.

“When people come in, you don’t know what they have been through – some of them might be going through a tragedy or breaking up, but a smile or saying hello can mean a lot to people. It can break down barriers and create opportunities.”


Like making the idea of devouring a dish of venison heart while seated beneath wall-mounted antlers seem like a good one – a task Rebecca Smidt is charged with every night.

Auckland game restaurant Cazador turned 25 last year, the same year Smidt and her husband Dariush Lolaiy returned home from a seven-year stint in Europe to take over the business his father opened a quarter of a century ago. These days Lolaiy runs the kitchen, while Smidt manages the front-of-house.

Along with food and wine, the 29-year-old is also passionate about making service a respected career choice, and good service the norm. But taking over a long-standing family business has added an extra challenge for Smidt. Not only does she have to win over new customers that visit her dining room, she must also impress the old faithful who were first greeted by her parents-in-law all those years ago.

“I don’t know if there is a trick to it, apart from just listening, and paying attention and watching. As a waiter, watching is crucial – you look at details all the time.

“You learn within a few minutes for the night, and then you learn over the night for the next time. 

All you want is to have a happy customer; that’s all you are working for.”

Smidt says while creating that perfect night out is the ultimate goal for any restaurant owner, she can see how easy it is for front line wait staff to lose faith in the work they do. “I could list you a dozen people across town who are brilliant hosts or waiters, but no one would have heard of them. Then I could list you 20 chefs that everybody knows. I think [wait staff] make a real difference, but there is no MasterWaiter.

“Chefs should be celebrated – they do wonderful things – but being a waiter is a thankless task. It’s a talent, being a good waiter, and there aren’t that many of them around because it’s tough – tough hours, it’s physical, and it’s undervalued.”

And according to recent stats, Kiwi’s still have a way to go before we can pat ourselves on the back for a job well done without reservation. Late last year, customer service educators KiwiHost released the 2012 Service Survey – a snapshot of the way customers think about their interactions with local companies and their staff. The results weren’t exactly glowing: 48 percent of people were satisfied with the level of customer service in New Zealand, with just 36 percent thinking service was getting better.

KiwiHost’s Jared Brixton says while the numbers are in step with previous years’ results, kicking things off properly has never been more essential to business. “These days, almost everyone will have a customer interaction, whether that be an internal or an external customer, you are always going to be serving someone. You can’t take it for granted you can hide in the background. And a lot of it comes down to that first interaction.”

With the explosion of social media, the worry isn’t limited to someone venting to a couple of mates about a bad experience – with the click of a button, it’s never been easier for an unhappy tale to reach hundreds of people. 

Brixton believes the laidback Kiwi way of life both helps and hinders our attempts to step up to the service plate. He says while we did a “fantastic job” during the Rugby World Cup, it appears very little has changed since those six weeks in the spotlight. 

It is time for New Zealand to demand more.“We like to show off our country in a good light; we are reasonably patriotic about what we do, and we certainly like to show people a good time – hope that they are enjoying our country and that they will send back their friends. [But] I do think we are a little apathetic about the service we provide and possibly our expectations as well. I know that people coming in from the States, for example, have pretty high levels of expectations, and I think while we do a reasonably good job, there’s the odd occasion where it lets us down, and unfortunately one bad experience can taint the image of – in this case – the country.”

For someone like Kevin Tautau, that is a reality of his job every day. But he says just remembering three simple words can make all the difference. Respect, professionalism and love. “Whether it’s a Rugby World Cup or a minor cup, people are excited whatever the event is because you make it exciting for them.” 

Sunday Magazine