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As customer service has moved at a rapid pace toward digital channels in place of the telephone, consumers are using more than just words to express their compliments and complaints. More and more, they are using emojis – just as if they were texting to a friend.

Digital customer service platform provider Sparkcentral recently completed an analysis of customers using emojis in brand communications and found some very interesting results. The company has built an “emoji cloud” report – much like a word cloud but with the omnipresent icons instead – to represent all the emojis that are used in various customer service experiences like chat sessions, direct messaging and social media.

“The emoji cloud is a new way to represent information,” said Sparkcentral’s CEO Joe Gagnon. “The cloud metaphor here allows us to look at the emphasis of each of the different emojis that a customer might have and look for patterns in those emojis as they communicate to a customer service rep or the rep communicating to them so that we can start to draw some insight from how people are feeling at the moment of interaction.”

The emoji clouds are interactive, so a user can click on an emoji and we drill into the consumer sentiment by examining the actual message which used the image.

“Why it matters is it gives us a real-time way of interpreting how customers are feeling about the business or about a product,” Gagnon said. “And at a very human level, that emoji is capturing more than just the data. It’s the feeling, which of course is what we’re all trying to get at.”

The trend of using emojis in customer service communications has been hastened by the emergence of private messaging as the preferred channel of choice for both consumers and companies – especially since it is often utilized on mobile devices.

Consumers like communicating with brands via private message – think Facebook Messenger or Twitter DM – because they can state their issue and then go about their day while knowing that an empowered social media agent is looking into it for them. There’s no waiting on hold or for “agent is typing…” in chat sessions, and the entire history of the conversation is saved for future use.

Companies like private messaging because, well, it’s private. So complaints about the products or services are kept to a one-to-one engagement instead of being shared publicly with the world.

Private messaging provides a familiarity for consumers because it works just like texting, and that’s where many people use emojis to express themselves. It is therefore unsurprising that emoji usage comes along with the transition to messaging in customer service.

Gagnon said emojis can provide a closer look into consumer sentiment than ever before.

“We can really look at information at a deeper and richer level to allow us to assess how we’re doing as a business,” he said. “So we see this as a big emerging trend going past just reports and into using emojis as a way to really understand customer satisfaction and sentiment.”

Like the old adage says, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Kelsey Walsh, social media customer service manager at Zappos, said that “emoji clouds are a great visual way to see both customer emotion and agent emotion. We feel like they represent a more realistic sentiment than just relying on words alone.”

Interestingly, emojis don’t always mean the same thing to everyone. Just ask people what the fist emoji means and you’ll get equally fervent answers of “fist bump” (positive) and “punch” (negative).

There are also cultural differences. Sparkcentral looked at a comparison of a U.S. brand and an Indonesian brand and the different emojis that customers and agents use. Differences included:

“The intrigue with emojis is that there is actually a cultural bias that’s used when people select them,” said Gagnon. “We all know that there are certain cultures around the world that are more discerning, or more happy, or using different images, to tell back to the organizations they’re talking to how they feel.”

He continued: “What we’re able to do is to start to understand when we look across a global organization that the commonality in the way that the emoji was used tells us where that sentiment is coming from geographically. And so we get this very quick ability to drill into localized issues that are coming through because the emojis are telling a story deeper and richer than just the images themselves.”

More and more customer service interactions are happening online and people are using emojis to express themselves. The fact that emojis can now be analyzed and aggregated allows companies to better understand customer sentiment and then work toward reducing negative customer experiences and increasing positive ones.

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