Smileys, are they laughable? On the use of emojis in complaint management

Smileys, are they laughable? On the use of emojis in complaint management

Bernard De Clerck and Chloé Lybaert

Two thousand eight hundred and twenty-three. That’s how many emojis exist today. And the count keeps going up. The last update dates back to June 2018, when another 157 emojis were added to the emoji dictionary. They’re not just a few color variants to existing emojis, mind you. We’re talking about additions that need to be approved by the Unicode Standard. Each one has to receive a separate, detailed description. Compared to that, the colon and parenthesis that make up our traditional smiley ‘:)’ is nothing more than a digital cave drawing.

Not only are there a lot of emojis, their use is also widespread: every day, 5 billion emojis are sent out through Facebook Messenger, and the Emojipedia (the online emoji Bible) receives no less than 12 million hits every year. In 2015, the emoji ‘face with tears of joy’ was even proclaimed ‘word of the year’ by the Oxford Dictionaries (Steinmetz, 2015).

Emojis fill an interactive void, which makes sense. In online communication, there’s no intonation, eye contact, volume of speech, body language, or facial expressions which can enforce, disambiguate or give emotional color to the written message we wish to transfer. In online complaints, emojis are used to indicate how angry, displeased, disappointed or outraged a person is with the service a hotel has provided them. In this ‘golden age of complaining’ (like a British newspaper article describes our time), it might come as no surprise that the little puking face is one of the most popular emojis.

This underlines the importance of correct complaint management, but it also begs the question whether a self-respecting hotel can afford to use emojis this way. For instance, can a hotel support the hope of a successful outcome with a thumbs up in their response, or can they rely on a bulging bicep and a smiley face if a solution was found right away? There’s no black and white answer to this question, but here at Hotelspeaker, we’re certainly trying to get a better picture.

In previous blog posts, we’ve talked about a conversational, humane style (better known in literature as conversational human voice), and how its use can have a positive effect on the appreciation of complaint management. Examples of this are the use of informal language, or personalizing messages: in most cases, it works. What could be more humane and conversational than the use of emojis to support visually support our sentiments, like we would do in face-to-face conversation? Based on the accommodation theory, we know that the alignment of communicative traits leads to an improvement in interpersonal relationships. Why would emojis be any different?

In other words: if customers use emojis, why shouldn’t a hotel be allowed to do so? On the other hand, would it be professional for a Marriott hotel to use little yellow men in their communication? What if the customer doesn’t use emojis? Could you strengthen empathy using visual elements in your answer? At Hotelspeaker, we took a peek at some of the existing literature and complemented it with additional scientific research performed by Ghent University.

Until now, the effect of emojis in specific online contexts of complaint management hasn’t been extensively of systematically researched in such a way as to keep into account factors which could influence such a toleration policy (think of your brand identity, the seriousness of the complaint, the type of emoji, etc.). But at least we know a couple of things.

The amplifying effect of emoticons based on punctuation marks (the precursors to the graphical icons we find in emojis) was already confirmed by Derks, Bos & Grumbkow (2008) who put the tonality of both positive and negative messages in the spotlight. Postmes et al. (2000) confirmed that users indeed show copycat behavior when using visual support mechanisms, and Walther, Loh & Granka (2005) and Babin (2006) have demonstrated that mutual trust, intimacy and social cohesion get a boost when emojis are used.

We have to nuance all of this a little bit. The positive effects are less explicit in task-oriented conversation, their frequency is also lower in a negative context and emojis are less often used in contexts where there is a larger social gap (Derks, Bos & Grumbkow, 2007). This argues against the use of emojis in complaint management.

There’s also some interesting news from an intercultural perspective. Despite their ‘universal nature’, the ten most frequently used emojis differ greatly from one another, depending on their country of origin. Countries sharing the same language often use the same emojis (except for Brazil, where the geographical effect of Latin America is a big influence). The general frequency of use seems to be pretty similar though, with the exception of France, which uses almost twice as many emojis. Drôle, quoi.

Something that perhaps ties in closely with complaint management is the pilot research conducted at Ghent University. An experiment was created in which customers had formulated complaints with and without emojis. The context: an online shopping environment where a gift that was promised was not included in the delivery.

The company’s responses were written to either include or omit emojis. The responses containing emojis used one to three of them: a sad emoji to support “how unfortunate” in the reaction to the complaint, a thumb and a smiley for the proposed plan of action. The included survey asked about the level of professionalism used in managing the complaints, the level of investment in personal relationships with the customer, loyalty to the service, and whether the respondents thought a response using emojis was appropriate.

Even though this was a pilot study, a number of interesting trends could be noted. For starters: even when the customers themselves didn’t use emojis, they didn’t penalize the company for doing the opposite. What’s more, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference: no strong influence on customer satisfaction or the perception of professionalism could be observed, not even when the company used up to three emojis in their response.

The results did show some variation depending on the customer’s age. The experiment targeted a population of young users between the ages of 18-21, 22-25 and 25-30. The use of emojis was considered more informal and more divergent by the ‘older’ group. Whether or not the company had an explanation for the problem seemed to have a much bigger impact on the perceived human conversational style than the use of emojis.

Therefore, perceived ‘humanity’ doesn’ necessarily need to be associated with more emotion. If we compare this to a complaint in which the customer uses an emoji themselves, we don’t notice any systematic differences either.

The absence of emojis in the company’s answer is not penalized with lower scores for the constructs, and only in a few scenarios could we notice a slight increase in conversational human voice (albeit not systematically) and the extent to which a company invests in the personal relationship. This effect lowers again if an explanation for the problem is missing. When asked whether the use of emojis is appropriate in this context, we noticed a slight increase of 10% if the complaint also contained an emoji, but in general emojis were tolerated.

What can we conclude from this, and what can we advise? Firstly, we need to handle this information with a certain amount of caution. A missing gift in an online shopping context is hardly the equivalent of finding a cockroach in your hotel room. We believe that the seriousness of the complaint is certainly a contributing factor.

A lot also depends on your brand identity and your personal communication style, but the use of emojis is not a complete no go in complaint management. This can be partially contributed to a form of visual habituation by the excessive use of emojis in other contexts where there is already some level of semantic erosion, especially when considering the ‘standard’ nature of the emojis that were used in the experiments. However, variants with green or red faces are still a bridge too far.

Please contact us if you have any questions regarding the visual support of your messages, and we’ll try to map out the different factors for you.

This blog post was based on the studies ‘Keep on smiling? – The impact of emojis on costumer outcomes in company responses to support-seeking complaints’ (Sampers, J., 2018) and “To emoji or not to emoji: the impact of emojis on customer outcomes in company responses to support-seeking complaints on Facebook” (Lucas, L., 2019)



Babin, J.J. (2016). A Picture Is worth a Thousand Words: Emojis, Computer-Mediated Communication, and Trust.SSRN Working Paper 2883578.

Derks, D., A. Bos & J. Grumbkow (2007). Emoticons and social interaction on the Internet: The importance of social context. Computers in Human Behavior, 23, 842-849.

Derks, D., A. Bos & J. Grumbkow (2008). Emoticons and Online Message Interpretation. Social Science Computer Review, 379-388.

Postmes, T., R. Spears & M. Lea (2000). The formation of group norms in computer-mediated communication. Human communication research, 26(3), 341-371.

Steinmetz, K. (16 November 2015). Oxford’s 2015 Word of the Year Is This Emoji. Time ,p.1. Geraadpleegd op 24 March 2018 via

Walther, J. B., T. Loh& L. Granka (2005). Let me count the ways: The interchange of verbal and nonverbal cues in computer-mediated and face-to-face affinity. Journal of language and social psychology, 24(1), 36-65


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