"We've erased our phone number," a message on the website of a photographic company I needed to contact quickly last week stated. According to the Financial Times, "this is because we found that customers prefer to talk online, by email, or by filling out the form below."

Yes, that's right, I thought as I completed the online form and pushed the submit button, sending my query into a digital world where I doubted anyone would see it.

Unexpectedly, someone responded swiftly via email. But by then, I'd already spoken with a competitor who had a phone number on their website and a person who answered swiftly.

The point is the no-number company has been upfront about its ambitions. A growing number of businesses have quietly removed phone numbers from their websites or made them so challenging to locate that they may as well not exist. This occurred long before the epidemic triggered a surge in digital trade. To find someone on social media sites such as Facebook has been so tough that even police officers have complained.

But it's gotten to the point that seeing a prominent company phone number is obvious, and having someone answer a call fast feels like hitting the lottery.

We are all aware of why this occurs. People are expensive. Cost efficiency is necessary for failing businesses. Many of the questions can be found easily online. There are frequent nuisance calls.

However, things appear to be changing. This year, Spain opted to mandate businesses to answer customer calls with a live employee within three minutes, and similar initiatives are being planned in the United Kingdom. Why aren't more companies capitalizing on the growing dissatisfaction with customer service and turning it into a competitive advantage?

I had this thought earlier this year when visiting Australia, where Telstra announced its decision to reopen its call centers in the country. The move follows years of complaints from irritated customers, which can be especially acute following significant floods and other weather disasters that have rocked the country in recent years.

BT, the British telecommunications corporation, made a similar initiative to transfer these facilities prior to the pandemic's onset and claims to have observed significant gains. Customer complaints have dropped so drastically that BT, which used to have among the highest levels in the business, now outperforms the industry average. The centers' efficiency has also increased. "We are roughly 30% more efficient and effective," a representative told me last week, adding that the assumption that only the elderly desired to talk on the phone was incorrect.

Although many queries may be answered online, customers still prefer to call for any complex or sensitive issue, and "this doesn't particularly differ by demographic."

To company leaders like Tony Hsieh, the late American creator of online shoe firm Zappos, the benefits of offering good customer service have long been evident. He believed that devoted consumers and word-of-mouth were critical to increasing sales income from less than $2 million to more than $1 billion in just ten years.

"Contact information on many websites is buried at least five links deep because the company doesn't want to hear from you, and when you do find it, it's a form or an email address," he wrote in the Harvard Business Review. Zappos took "the exact opposite approach," placing its phone number at the top of every page of its website and teaching employees to go out of their way to assist customers. "As unappealing and low-tech as it may appear, the phone is one of the best branding instruments available," he says.

Hsieh sold Zappos to Amazon for $1.2 billion in 2009, a firm that, like Zappos, lacks conspicuous phone lines yet ranks high in customer satisfaction due to its online offerings.

Few companies have the strength of Amazon, but many businesses may adopt Tony Hsieh's mentality before governments force them to.


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