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E-C, Phone Home

By Beth Cox     Feedback

Today's No. 1 e-commerce peeve: why are there so very few telephone numbers on Web sites?

So many e-commerce and corporate Web sites that I visit these days just seem to go out of their way to irritate me. And my No. 1 peeve (well, today's pet peeve, at least) has to do with the telephone -- as in why are there so very few telephone numbers on Web sites?

Well, I think I know why. They just plain don't want to be bothered. The telephone remains a marvelous tool for communication, more personal than e-mail. But unlike e-mail, unless you screen all your calls (rather impolite) or hide behind an officious secretary, you're not in control.

I think there's even a "no calls please" culture out there, created in part by the many folks who work side-by-side in offices but often communicate mostly by e-mail. I'd bet you've seen that happen. I know I'm that way myself sometimes, largely because as a writer, I'm frequently deluged with calls from friendly public relations types pitching me the latest dot com wrinkle and trying desperately to get me to do a story about their new client.

But I'm not running an e-commerce Web site, trying to sell things to the general public. If I were, I'd be happy for you to call, because I view every customer contact as a chance to make a sale, either now or later.

The sheer size of the Internet, however, can create problems in this regard. Obviously, the larger your site, the more potential calls you may get, which probably goes a ways to explain why it's virtually impossible to find a telephone number on eBay, a site whose contact information page says this:

eBay Inc.
2145 Hamilton Avenue
San Jose, California 95125

Customer support forms abound, of course. They'll be happy to look at your e-mail, sooner or later.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not picking on eBay. It's clear that any site like eBay or Amazon.com that deals with a customer base that is measured in the millions could go broke paying people to answer the phone. And yes, I know that's what eCRM is all about, and I also know about the various software solutions, live chat and the "click-to-talk" apps.

But my point here is that if you are running a smaller site, one with a customer base in the thousands, say, you might be able to set yourself apart a little by answering phone calls from your users. It might not cost all that much, and you could learn something really valuable from this old-fashioned feedback mechanism. For business intelligence, nothing beats knowing the kinds of problems your customers are running into.

If you're the boss, you might want to make a little experiment on your next business trip: try calling your site. Pretend you have a problem. See how you're treated. Then try calling your office. No, not with the number you have memorized. See if you can get through just by perusing the Web site.

I, for one, will go out of my way to patronize a store, or a Web site, where I get smiling customer service, where I'm treated like a human being, and where, if I have to wait, they at least apologize for it.

I think Web sites have a lot to learn from the classy companies in the world of catalog sales operations, such as Land's End. There's the 800 number, right on the first page of their Web site. And every time I've ever called, I got to talk to a person within three or four rings. And almost always it was a person who actually knew something about the stock.

Interestingly, at rival L.L. Bean's site, I had to go four screens in to find an 800 phone number.

Both those companies have loads of phone-order experience and I know that lots of Internet pure-plays do not. But you don't have to be a personal friend of Ma Bell to figure out that the phone works. Use it to make your company available to customers -- you might be amazed at the results.

This article was originally published on January 31, 2001
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