Why is it so difficult to make anyone on the phone? – Irish Times

“We’ve removed our phone number,” said a note on the website about a photography company I needed to call in a hurry last week. “This is because we’ve noticed that customers prefer to chat online, via email, or by filling out the form below,” she added.

Yes, right, I thought, when I grumpily filled out the online form and hit submit, sending my query to some digital underworld where I doubted it would see anything as expensive as a human.

As it happened, someone responded, very quickly, via email. But by then, I had already spoken to a competitor who had a phone number on their site, and someone picked up quickly – a fact that passed on to the number one company with a degree of victory that I’m not proud of.

The thing was, Countless Businesses were at least open about their intentions. An increasing number of organizations have quietly dispensed with website phone numbers, or have made them so hard to find that they may not even exist.

This was happening long before the pandemic triggered a wave of digital commerce. It has been known that getting to someone on places like Facebook has been so difficult that even police officers have complained. But it got to the point where seeing a prominent company phone number today is a highlight and getting a quick call from someone feels like they’re winning some kind of jackpot.

We all know why this happens. People are expensive. For companies struggling with Covid disease, cost efficiency is critical. Many queries can be answered easily online. Annoying calls are common.

However, a backlash is forming. Spain moved this year to require companies to answer customer calls within three minutes, with a staff member being flesh and blood, and similar efforts are afoot in the UK.

The question is, why aren’t more companies seizing on the growing anger over unconscious customer service and establishing a competitive virtue of providing better support?

I inquired about this earlier this year on a visit to Australia, where telecoms group Telstra was boldly announcing its decision to bring all of its call centers back home. The move comes after years of complaints from tired customers, which can become especially acute during the major floods and other weather disasters that have plagued the country in recent years.

British telecoms group BT ended similar call center relocation efforts before the pandemic, and says they have brought significant benefits. Their grip on customers has waned so much that BT, which previously had one of the worst levels of complaints in the sector, is now beating industry averages.

The efficiency of the call center is also higher. “We are about 30 percent more efficient and effective,” a company spokesperson told me last week, adding that it was a mistake to think that only seniors wanted to talk to someone on the phone.

While a lot of inquiries can be handled online, communication remains customers’ first preference for any complex or sensitive issue and “this doesn’t really vary by demographic.”

The advantages of providing decent customer service have always been clear to business leaders like Tony Hsieh, the late American founder of the online shoe empire Zappos. He believed that repeat customers and word of mouth were critical in increasing sales revenue from less than $2 million to more than $1 billion in just 10 years. “On many websites, contact information is buried at least five links deep, because the company doesn’t really want to hear from you. And when you find it, it’s a form or an email address,” he once wrote in Harvard Business Review.

Zappos has taken a “completely opposite approach,” placing its phone number at the top of every page on its website and training employees to do their best to help people. “While it may sound unexciting and low-tech, the phone is one of the best branded devices out there,” he said.

Hsieh sold Zappos for $1.2 billion in 2009 to Amazon, a company that also lacks phone numbers but ranks high in customer satisfaction thanks to its online service.

Few companies match the power of Amazon but thousands can follow Tony Hsieh’s spirit – before governments forced them to. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022