In tomorrow's Circuits, Katie Hafner of the New York Times takes on customer support numbers. Just about everyone is familiar with how difficult it is to get customer support numbers for internet companies, the most famous example being Amazon.com's customer support number (800-201-7575). Hafner talks to a number of people who have learned tricks for finding a path to a human.
Aside from hiding their phone numbers, companies make it insanely difficult to speak to a human once you find their phone number. Virtually every call I make to a major company begins with a lengthly discussion about their website, their automated systems and every other product they've created to avoid human interaction. There is only one company that I know of that promotes their number: OneCall.com. Their gimmick, which definitely works for me, is that a human picks up the phone when you call instead of a sweet-talking aumotated system. I can't describe how valuable this is.
The lack of human interaction these days reminds me of James Gleick's book, Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. In it, he devotes a chapter, "The Telephone Lottery", to customer support numbers and how companies have shifted from valuing the customer's time to valuing their own.* The chapter talks about this in depth, but one impressive stat is that the software industry by itself makes Americans wait 3 billion minutes every year.
In the New York Times article, Katie Hafner discusses a woman's problems when her credit card was declined. She couldn't find a support number and freaked out a bit. Hafner writes:
"I was getting a bit panicky," said Ms. Flynn, who lives in Cork, Ireland. "And when you're in a panic state you really want to talk to a human being." Finally she found an online customer-service form and filled it out, twice, just to be safe. It took four days to get a personal response by e-mail.
Later, she writes:
Mr. [Lou] Garcia, from the consumer affairs group, said that he planned to stick to his guns; that it was in a company's best interests to make sure a customer could get through to a person. "Because if they can solve your problem, the chances are really high that you'll be a satisfied customer," he said.
This reminded me of the book I'm currently reading, Defensive Design for the Web, which is about contingency design. The book focuses on how to turn mistakes into something positive. When talking about a customer study from a hotel chain, they said, "Guests who experienced a problem that was quickly and politely resolved rated the hotel service higher than guests who had no problem at all. And guests with happy resolution of their hassle were more likely to recommend the hotel than trouble-free guests." This hits the nail on the head -- why don't these companies view the ability to talk to a customer as an opportunity? Another quote from the NYT article says that people were calling an iPod accestory store for iPod technical support. Instead of turning off phone support, which is what they did, the company should have trained their sales staff to gently explain why they can't give support, offer them some helpful alternatives and then try and turn the call into a sale. This seems like common sense.
A company like Amazon has less to gain from posting their phone number for all to see, but people have come to expect and now accept that large corporations are difficult to contact. Email might be the best option in those cases. It is small- to medium-sized companies that stand to benefit.
As an example, a few years back I bought $75 worth of speaker cable from a small company online. Two weeks passed and I hadn't received anything despite leaving phone and email messages, so I wrote and said I'd be cancelling my order. Still, I couldn't get a response. They finally contacted me after I told them I had called the Better Business Bureau. I was surprised when they credited me and also sent me the product, but their lack of customer support meant I would never buy from their company again.
It's only a matter of time before companies begin to realize the opportunities available in customer support. If myself or any of the people mentioned in the NYT article had made human contact early in the support cycle then we would have been happy customers. Instead, I'm ranting about this on my blog and Ms. Flynn is being quoted in the New York Times. If these online stores shift at least some of the value of time back to the consumer it would be a win-win situation -- consumers would walk away happy and retailers would sell more product.
If you know of any good or bad examples of customer support, I'd love to hear them. Let's smoke out the baddies together.
*Previously, I wrote a post about how to enhance the waiting experience.