Emoticons Personalize Customer Service

Customer service agents who use emoticons in their online responses to customers were given higher scores and considered more personal than those who did not, according to a new Pennsylvania State study in which participants rated different types of customer service.

While emoticons may seem too casual or silly to be used in formal communications, the findings show that they can, in fact, play an important role in professional and business communications, say the researchers. Representatives who used emoticons were even seen as more personal than those who displayed a profile picture along with their responses.

“The emoticon is even more powerful than the picture, though classic research would say that the richer the modality — for instance, pictures and videos — the higher the social presence,” said S. Shyam Sundar, Distinguished Professor of Communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory, who worked with Eun Kyung Park, a researcher at Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea.

“But the fact that the emoticon came within the message and that this person is conveying some type of emotion to customers makes customers feel like the agent has an emotional presence.”

Customers prefer customer service agents who can demonstrate their empathy over agents who do not, said Park.

“Emoticons can be effective vehicles for expression of empathy in customer relations, especially in the mobile ecommerce context,” Park said.

Also, agents who responded more quickly to customers during the chat were rated more positively than those who did not. This quick, back-and-forth type of conversation, makes customers feel more like they are taking part in a real conversation.

“When people are instant messaging, for example, and the messages are flying back and forth, so that one person sends a message and the other person immediately responds, it feels like they are in the same place,” said Sundar. “That can create the feeling of social presence.”

Responsiveness is especially important when businesses deal with customer complaints, noted Park.

“Feelings of co-presence, constructed by the agent’s promptness, might lead customers to be loyal to the company by creating a favorable service experience,” Park added.

The two tactics that improved customer ratings — emoticons and responsiveness — took different routes to achieve those results, said Sundar. The emoticons made customers feel emotionally connected to the agent, but the quick conversations gave customers a feeling of being together in a physical sense.

“To have a meaningful conversation we often need to be in the same place at the same time, however, in a mediated environment, when you’re distant and not in the same place as the person you are communicating with, it’s hard to create that feeling of togetherness,” said Sundar.

“What this shows is that if a conversation can’t happen in the same place, at least it can happen at the same time, which leads to positive evaluations.”

Because online messaging and texting are relatively inexpensive, businesses are promoting these technologies as ways to process customer queries and complaints.

“Face-to-face communication would be ideal. Unfortunately that isn’t feasible for most companies,” said Sundar. “But perhaps there are creative ways that these companies can offer some benefits of face-to-face conversations in an online environment, such as by using emoticons and instant messaging.”

The findings are published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

Source: Penn State