Emojis and emoticons are well and truly part of the way we communicate, today. They’re on social media postings. They’re on e-mails. They’re even on marketing campaigns. But how do customers feel about company representatives using emojis in customer interactions, for instance, in an e-mail exchange or on Facebook? Will they think that it is a step too far?
Researchers Xueni (Shirley) Li, Kimmy Wa Chan and Sara Kim conducted a series of experiments to investigate this matter. The results from their research were published in a paper entitled “Service with Emoticons: How Customers Interpret Employee Use of Emoticons in Online Service Encounters”, published in the Journal of Consumer Research (paid access).
The experiments tested the impact of using the emojis and emoticons that traditionally represent positive and negative emotions (i..e, 😀, :-), 😩 and 😦 ), on customers’ perceptions of company representatives. Li and colleagues found that, in general, customers perceive employees who use emojis and emoticons as nicer but less competent than those that don’t (figure 1).
Does that mean that a brand looking to create an image of expertise should not let its employees use emojis and emoticons, while another one seeking to develop an emotional connection should encourage staff to add the little images and symbols to their messages?
It’s not that simple. According to the same paper, the type of customer and the type of situation can dramatically interact with the effect described above.
Type of customer
To investigate how different types of customers might judge the use of emojis and emoticons, the researchers ran a second experiment. They classified customers in terms of whether they were “communal-oriented” or “exchange-oriented”. Communal-oriented customers value having a relationship with service providers, whereas exchange-oriented customers focus on transactions.
The researchers found that the type of orientation amplified the effect of emojis discovered in the first study (Figure 2). Namely, the use of emojis decreases satisfaction in exchange-oriented customers, and that the opposite happens for communal-oriented customers.
When service employees use emoticons, communal-oriented customers are more likely to infer higher warmth and, therefore, to be more satisfied with the service; while exchange-oriented customers are more likely to infer lower competence, and to be less satisfied.
Type of situation
Li and her team ran two other experiments to explore how the type of service scenario, namely a service failure vs. extra service, may influence customers’ perceptions. The researchers found that using emoticons with dissatisfied customers further increases their dissatisfaction. The authors explain that dissatisfaction increases exchange orientation in customers and, therefore, focuses attention on perceived competence. After all, if we are trying to solve a problem, we don’t really care how nice the employee is – we just want to get the problem solved, right?!
That is, 1) the use of emojis by staff decreases their perceived level of competence, and 2) exchange orientation amplifies the focus on competence, the two effects combined to leave customers dealing with a service failure even more dissatisfied than they were, already.
The opposite happened in the second scenario, when customers were delighted because they had been offered extra service, such as receiving additional advice, or being treated particularly well. The researchers found using emojis amplifies these customers’ customer satisfaction. This is because satisfaction increases communal orientation in customers and, therefore, focuses their attention on the staff’s perceived warmth. As using emojis increases staff’s perceived warmth, this further amplified the positive effect already experienced.
The authors go on to say:
Our findings also help to provide a potential explanation for why some uses of emoticons in real business practices are successful while others are not. (…) it is possible that customers of Domino’s Pizza might focus more on the warmth than on the competence of its employees, because the company highlights a friend-like relationship with its customers, whereas customers of Goldman Sachs might focus more on the competence than on the warmth of its employees, because the company stresses satisfactory returns on investments. (p. 983)
So, use emojis and emoticons with care. They can make a good situation great, but they can also backfire.