Should Your Startup Use Emojis as a Customer Communication Tool?


By Kimmy Wa Chan and Shirley Xueni Li 

Useful tips on how emojis can help and hinder your customer relations

Customer service is a critical part of startup success, but it often falls by the wayside when founders are bogged down by other tasks. When communicating with customers, setting the right tone from the outset goes a long way in building brand reputation and generating conversions. Today, we will look at a trending tool for customer service representatives: emojis. 

No longer just for chatting with family and friends, we see more and more businesses experimenting with emojis to connect and engage with customers on social media and ecommerce platforms. As this shift takes place, we find ourselves asking: what do consumers think of all this? 

To help answer this question, Hong Kong Baptist University School of Business recently conducted a study to explore how customers perceive brands that use emojis in customer service conversations. Here are the key findings that could significantly impact your startup’s success:

Using emojis can make you seem warmer, but less competent to customers

According to the study, customer service employees who use emoticons appear warmer, but also less competent. This perception applies to pictorial (e.g.,       ) and text-based (e.g., 🙂 ) emojis, showing that the power of emojis is not purely driven by eye-catching graphics and colors.

Emoji perceptions depend on the customer’s personality

Communal-oriented customers (i.e., customers who enjoy friendlier relationships with brands) think customer service providers who use emojis are warmer, which makes them feel more satisfied with the service experience. On the other hand, exchange-oriented customers (i.e., customers who prefer purely transactional relationships with brands) will negatively associate the use of emojis with the provided service.

Emojis make bad situations worse

Emojis do not resolve a customer’s negative feelings from unsatisfactory service; in fact, they only compound it. When service is failing to resolve a situation, all customers increasingly look for competence as opposed to warmth. In these situations, emoticon usage–no matter how cute or clever–by a customer service representative usually makes the situation even worse.

Emojis can secure conversions when the time is right

When a customer service employee goes the extra mile to address a customer’s needs (e.g., proactively providing extra care or knowledge) using messages with emojis, the study finds that customers are more likely to make the purchase. 

Four tips for improving your customer communications:

1. Use emojis if you want your brand to appear warmer, but keep in mind that it likely won’t help your brand look more professional and competent. You need to find the right balance for your startup.

2. Understand your customer segments, then tailor your communication strategy. ‘The simpler, the better’ rings true when faced with exchange-oriented customers, as emoji use is not perceived positively.

3. Make sure you have a comprehensive customer service protocol in place that follows the entire customer journey. Being prepared to deal with a customer’s situation is always better than trying to use emojis to help salvage a relationship turned sour.

4. If your services are genuinely exceeding a customer’s expectations, try leveraging emojis in your communications to help drive conversion. You may be surprised by their effectiveness.

With these tips in mind, savvy startups can effectively enhance their customer communications with emojis without overstepping their boundaries. 

Kimmy is a Professor and Shirley is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Marketing at Hong Kong Baptist University School of Business.

About the Authors 

Kimmy is a Professor in the Department of Marketing at Hong Kong Baptist University School of Business. Her research specializations are in Services Marketing and Customer Relationship Management for which she has published numerous studies.

Shirley is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Marketing at Hong Kong Baptist University School of Business. Her research interests span Consumer Behavior, Digital Marketing,  Marketing Communication Strategy, Sales Marketing, Services Marketing; and Customer-Employee Interaction.

Photo by Lidya Nada on Unsplash


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