Digital smiley faces have been around for years and are particularly popular with the younger generations. It has become commonplace for us to insert an emoticon – or its more advanced emoji counterpart – at the end of a message. Texts, emails and social media posts are no strangers to the symbols. While they're fun to use with friends, are they appropriate for business communications?

Emoticons increase customer satisfaction
One study said yes. In their work published in Computers in Human Behavior, researchers from Pennsylvania State University discovered that businesses that use emoticons when handling online customer service communications rank higher among consumers. People felt more connected with agents who used the symbols in their messages than with those who used straight text.

"Emoticons can be effective vehicles for expression of empathy in customer relations, especially in the mobile e-commerce context," Eun Kyung Park, a researcher at Sungkyunkwan University and one of the study's authors, said in a press release.

The use of emoticons allowed consumers to feel as if they were talking to a person instead of a computer. When customer service representatives are quick to respond and use the symbols, they create a real-time conversation with the person that is almost as good as being face-to-face.

Texting and instant messaging are relatively inexpensive so they're easy to fit into your financial plan. They may also increase productivity and customer satisfaction as agents can speak with many consumers at once instead of just one over the phone.

Symbols convey non-verbal cues
Just as emoticons make consumers feel closer to businesses, they can do the same with employees. If people work from home or are even just separated by cubicles, they may feel disconnected from their peers, LinkedIn explained. However, emoticons can help close that gap. Regular online communications can't convey feelings and non-verbal cues, but the symbols can make up for that. Virtual emotions allow your co-workers to learn how you communicate, according to the source.

Of course, that doesn't mean you should use emoticons and emojis for everyone with whom you communicate with in the business. Unless you have a casual relationship, they should be eliminated from formal messages, the Houston Chronicle explained. You never want to use emoticons when you first start communicating with someone. It may come across as unprofessional if you send them to the wrong person. They might be okay later on in the relationship, but never initially.

In any case, you should take your cues from the recipient, the source suggested. If they seem more casual and friendly, they may be open to using emoticons. Usually, if you're on a first-name basis and you regularly exchange pleasantries, you can probably send them.

Online communications leave much to be desired in the customer service world. Without face-to-face discussions, you may find it hard to decipher tone and feelings through the written word. However, with technology dominating today's society, businesses need to learn how to integrate device-specific language – such as emoticons – into everyday conversations.