The strange death of the company phone number


“We’ve canceled our phone number,” read a note on the website of a photography company I urgently needed to contact last week. “It’s because we’ve noticed that customers prefer to chat online, via email or filling out the form below,” he added.

Yeah, right, I thought, as I sullenly filled out the online form and hit “submit,” sending my question to some digital underworld where I doubted it would be seen by something as expensive as a human.

Finally someone responded quickly, by email. But by now I had already spoken to a competing company that had a phone number on its website and a person who answered right away — which I conveyed to the first company with a degree of triumph I’m not proud of.

The unnumbered company was at least being clear about its intentions. A growing number of organizations have silently eliminated phone numbers from websites, or made them so hard to find that it’s as if they don’t exist.

This was happening long before the pandemic spurred the wave of digital commerce. Reaching a person on places like Facebook has been so difficult that even the police have complained.

But today it has reached the point where seeing the phone number of a major company is becoming a remarkable thing, and having a call answered quickly by one person is like winning the lottery.

We all know why this happens. People are expensive. For companies hit by Covid, cost efficiency is crucial. Many questions can be easily answered online. There are too many uncomfortable phone calls.

Still, a backlash is taking shape. This year, Spain began requiring companies to answer customer calls within three minutes with a real person, and similar efforts are underway in the UK.

The question is, why don’t more companies capitalize on the growing anger over poor customer service and make it a competitive virtue to offer better support?

I wondered about this earlier this year on a visit to Australia, where telecoms group Telstra boldly announced its decision to bring all its call centers home.

The move follows years of complaints from fed up customers, which could become especially severe during major floods and other weather disasters that have hit the country in recent years.

UK telecoms group BT completed a similar call center repatriation initiative before the pandemic, and says it has seen great benefits.

Customer complaints have dropped so low that BT, which once had some of the worst complaint levels in the industry, is now above the approval rating. Call center efficiency is also higher.

“We are about 30% more efficient and effective,” a spokesperson told me last week, adding that it was a mistake to think that only older people want to talk to a real person on the phone.

While many queries can be handled online, calls remain a customer preference for any complex or sensitive issue, and “this doesn’t differ much by demographic groups.”

The advantages of providing decent customer service have always been obvious to business leaders like the late Tony Hsieh, the American who founded the Zappos online shoe empire. He believed that loyal customers and word of mouth were crucial in increasing revenues from less than US$2 million to more than US$1 billion in just ten years.

“On many sites, contact information is buried at least five links deep, because the company really doesn’t want to hear from the customer. And when you find it, it’s a form or an email address,” he once wrote at Harvard. Business Review.

Zappos took the “exactly the opposite approach,” putting its phone number at the top of every page on the site and training its staff to help people. “As unsexy and low-tech as it may sound, the phone is one of the best branding devices out there,” he said.

Hsieh sold Zappos for $1.2 billion in 2009 to Amazon, a company that also doesn’t have phone numbers but scores highly in customer satisfaction thanks to its online service.

Few companies match Amazon’s power, but thousands could follow Tony Hsieh’s example before governments force them to do so.

Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves

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