Service with a Smiley?

When it comes to the service encounter, we all know the importance of a nice warm smile. It engenders warmth and empathy, as well as removing any perceived barriers to a mutually-satisfying exchange.


It’s also doubly effective in a service recovery situation where a sense of understanding and a willingness to resolve a problem can not only prevent a customer being lost but, when executed effectively, it can even increase loyalty in the longer term.

The challenge for online service providers, of course, is how to provide this human touch in the absence of a direct face-to-face encounter. In an attempt to achieve this, a growing number of front-end staff have begun to use emojis and emoticons as a means of reducing barriers during a largely text-based interaction. The logic, presumably, is that it somehow replicates the style of interaction the customer has with family and friends. But is this the right approach?

Research by Shirley Li and her colleagues suggests otherwise. Combining both laboratory and field experiments in their design, the researchers evaluated interactions between providers and customers across two dimensions – warmth and competence – analysing online exchanges both with and without emoticons. The results were somewhat mixed as far as the service providers were concerned. It seems customers find the use of emoticons friendly, but they also equate them with a decrease in actual ability! Put another way, if you’re interacting with a customer online and you use a smiley, you’ll come across as warmer and more welcoming, but the recipient will also doubt your competence and be suspicious in your ability to actually solve a problem.

In a way, this isn’t that surprising. Emoticons try to replicate just one part of the interaction between two human beings, be that a smile, a frown or a roar of laughter. That’s fine with someone we know well because we have real-world experience of the other non-verbal cues they use and can almost imagine the face-to-face encounter that could be playing out where they actually there. We have no such points of reference with a complete stranger, however, so the best we can do is take that smiley at face value and assume they are being friendly – something that on its own gives us no indication of confidence and ability, though.

The motto here is very clear – when interacting with a customer online, politeness and professional will make for a more productive service encounter. Keep the emoticons for those texts to a loved one or your Facebook friends.