What you can learn from a smiley face

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Last month marked the 30th anniversary of the emoticon.

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Who knew that emoticons have been around that long? And yet I am not at all surprised to see that they have evolved from the realm of computer programmers and texting teens to the desktops of executives. In a world drowning in data, emoticons can convey important information that transcends mere numbers.

Think of your own burgeoning email inbox. If a colleague replies to you with nothing but a smiley face, you know he has received your email, is pleased with its message and that no further action is required. Delete. A grumpy face from an important customer and you realize a quick call is appropriate.

Those are simple examples. But these symbols also can provide executives with a crisp, clear scoreboard that captures the emotional balance sheet (or loyalty) of all their customers or their employees. My colleagues and I at Bain & Company have been encouraging companies to do just that.

For example, imagine using this emoticon chart to convey customer sentiment to your leadership team, middle managers and frontline employees:

smileygrid

With no additional explanation required, teams can quickly grasp how their customers are feeling. Unlike a numerical score, the faces also have an emotional, personal impact that encourages employees to take action. The Net Promoter score represented here is the result of a simple question asked of customers: On a scale of zero to 10, how likely is it that you would recommend us to a friend or colleague?

In this example, 5% of respondents are detractors, 15% are passives and 80% are promoters, which yields a Net Promoter Score of 75.

yellowsmiley

The yellow smiley faces are promoters: customers who gave nines and 10s. They are loyal enthusiasts who keep buying. They sing your praises to friends and colleagues (note their open mouths). They energize your employees and produce profitable, sustainable growth.

graysmiley

Gray-faced passives—scores of seven and eight—are satisfied but unenthusiastic customers who can be easily wooed by the competition.

redsmiley

And the angry red faces are detractors. Their mouths are also wide open —because they’re actively badmouthing your company, discouraging new customers and demotivating the employees who have to deal with them.

Simple? Yes—and that’s the point. Both the scores and the emoticons are easy to understand and quick to grasp, because the focus ultimately shouldn’t be on how you scored, but what you’re going to do about it.

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(Note: You can quickly transform your numerical Net Promoter results into a “promoter-passive-detractor” facewall by downloading an open-source emoticon widget from the website for my book, The Ultimate Question 2.0.)