Service with Emoticons: How Customers Interpret Employee Use of Emoticons in Online Service Encounters
Virtually no research has examined the role of emoticons in commercial relationships, and research outside the marketing domain reports mixed findings. This article aims to resolve these mixed findings by considering that emoticon senders are often simultaneously evaluated on two fundamental dimensions, warmth and competence, and the accessibility of one dimension over the other is critically contingent on salient relationship norms (communal vs. exchange norms) in customers’ minds due to individual and situational factors. Through laboratory and field experiments, the current research shows that customers perceive service employees who use emoticons as higher in warmth but lower in competence compared to those who do not (study 1). We further demonstrate that when a service employee uses emoticons, communal-oriented (exchange-oriented) customers are more likely to infer higher warmth (lower competence) and thus to be more (less) satisfied with the service (study 2). We also examine two practically important service situations that can make a certain type of relationship norm more salient: unsatisfactory services (study 3) and employees’ extra-role services (study 4). We speculate on possible mechanisms underlying these effects and discuss theoretical and practical implications along with opportunities for future research.