Study: Brands should be wary using emoticons in customer communication

Emoticons are ubiquitous to personal messaging, but new research suggests that brands should think twice before using them to talk to customers.

Conducted by HKBU School of Business, the "Service with Emoticons: How Customers Interpret Employee Use of Emoticons in Online Service Encounters" study focused on how customers evaluate emoticon usage by service providers on warmth and competence.

According to the study, when a customer service employee used emoticons, it felt warmer but made the representative appear less competent than those who did not use them, no matter which type of emoticons - both pictorial or text-based - were used and regardless of whether the emoticon used had positive or negative connotations.

That's not to say that using emoticons was found to be entirely without merit. Considering the personality and expectations of customers in defining how a service relationship should be conducted played an important role in determining how emoticons were ultimately perceived. So for instance, customers who enjoyed a friendlier relationship with brands perceived service providers using emoticons as appropriately warmer, which in turn made them feel happier with the service provided. Conversely, exchange-oriented customers (customers who preferred a purely transactional relationship with brands) saw a customer service employee using emoticons as unprofessional.

Satisfaction was also a key element to emoticon appropriateness. When customers felt that they had received outstanding service, using emoticons could boost customer purchase behaviour. This means that brands confident that their staff can resolve situations with exceptional service should feel more comfortable allowing customer service representatives to use emoticons. Yet, In unsatisfactory service situations, customers - whether they were exchange-oriented or preferred a friendlier relationship - would increasingly place value on competence as opposed to warmth. In such situations, any emoticon usage by a customer service representative would have a negative impact on the customer's attitude towards the employee.