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Why we do not offer telephone support
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Why we do not offer telephone support

For 8 years we provided telephone support in five or more languages and in many cases (Spain, Italy, France, UK and Germany) via free numbers for customers.

We received very few calls (good sign because it means our customers find our website easy to understand and get the information they need), but 90% of these calls were:

We could really offer something to the customer on less than 10% of the calls:

Even though we had so few truly “useful” calls, we felt it was justified to maintain telephone support simply because the service really provided good value for some customers, although few. Even when people asked about things that were perfectly clear on the website, it seemed valuable to them to be able to call and ask about them. If they did not get something valuable from it, why would they call?

But after eight years, one day we asked ourselves: What is the real value of our telephone support for customers? IberGour is an online store that sells ham. We assume that the real value it should offer them is essentially to let them choose and purchase a ham easily, get it to them as quickly as possible and that the ham is very good and the price is reasonable. If there are problems with any of this, they should be resolved easily, quickly and at no additional cost.

Then we analyzed the value we could really provide for each type of call, looking at what was happening with each one, and this is what we found:

Call What happened during the call What the customer gets

Commercial call

Our response was always the same: “I’m sorry. This is a customer service number. Send us the information by email and our sales department will look at it and contact you.”

Conclusion: This person would have saved time by sending us an email at the outset.

Waste of time

Wrong numbers

Our response: “I’m sorry. You’ve got the wrong number. We are not X; we are IberGour and we sell hams.” If we found X’s phone number we gave it to the caller (since we were talking to somebody, better to leave them with a good impression of us).

Conclusion: This person had wasted time because they were calling the wrong number. Although it was not a complete waste of time because we could usually give them the correct phone number.

Waste of time (though not entirely)

Questions about information clearly visible on the website

After a time we came to the conclusion that there is a type of customer who, upon visiting a website with the intention of buying something, the first thing they will do is look for the phone number and call to ask all the usual questions (“When will it arrive?”, “What are the shipping costs?”, “Do you have the product in stock?” ... Sometimes even: “What hams do you have?”). We could call it telephonitis.

This is perfectly understandable. It’s so hard to find this information on most websites that the telephone is much quicker. So it doesn’t matter how clear the information is on your website; if you indicate a phone number you will always get these kinds of calls.

The problem is that explaining something like “When will it arrive?” by phone seems simple but can actually be very complicated because it depends on multiple factors, like:

  • Where are you? (Shipments to Poland will taker longer than to France)
  • What do you want to purchase? (Sliced hams may take up to 2 days longer to get out)
  • How do you want to pay? (Payment by bank transfer may mean it takes longer to ship the package)

Actually, this is all very clearly explained on the website, but just try to explain this table to a person by phone. If the caller told you they were in France but you forgot to clarify if they were in continental France or on Corsica, naturally they will complain if the delivery time or shipping expense is not what you told them.

So what we did in these cases was to say: “Are you looking at the website now? OK, go to the bottom of the page and you will see a link saying "Shipping rates". Click it and it will take you to a page where you have all the information on the different shipping speeds with prices and everything else. If you have any other doubt, call us and we’ll clarify it.” The response was usually: “Ah, great, thank you very much”. End of call, case solved.

Conclusion: If this customer did not have the phone handy they would have searched for the information, found it immediately and saved the time they spent with the call. At the end of the day, the call was only useful to take them to the website page where they would have found it themselves if they had not found the phone number. Curiously, our good intention to provide good service only served to make the customer waste time.

Waste of time

Ask for a recommendation

This was one of the most complicated calls; fortunately it was one of the least common.

It is hard to recommend a ham. Some people ask: “What is the best ham?”. At bottom, this is almost like asking what the best wine is. There is no best wine. There are thousands of wines, each with its own characteristics. Although there are different categories of wine, some people like one type and other people prefer another, and it will also depend on the occasion. Nobody drinks the same wine all the time; the true wine lover likes to try different wines.

With ham, there are people who prefer it more dry, others more cured; some like it with a hint of sweetness and others more salty; some like it with lots of marbling and others want it leaner. Some people find the taste of genuine Iberian bellota ham too strong and some say anything other than bellota is insipid and boring.

At a grocery store it’s easy to respond to this question: you give the customer a piece to taste and when they find the one they like best, that’s it. In our case, we tried to figure out the customer’s taste by asking questions about what they liked. There are also very relevant factors like price that condition the purchase completely. It may also happen that the customer gets the impression you’re trying to get them to buy the ham you most want to sell instead of the one that best suits their preferences. In the end we resorted to arguments such as: “The hams that are most re-ordered by customers are X, Y, Z; you can see them on this page”, or “The ones that get the best customer ratings are X, Y, Z; you can see them here”, or “Here you can see that the ones most of our customers purchase in this category are X, Y, Z” — always referring to information published on the website.

Conclusion: This process took a lot of time but ended up taking customers around the website and showing them all the information that could help them decide. If the customer didn’t have the phone number, they would probably have made the same choice themselves much faster.

Waste of time

Place an order by phone

At bottom, this is another clear-cut case of telephonitis. On most websites it’s so complicated to place an order (complicated registration, filling in unnecessary information, unclear information, purchase processes that don’t work, etc.) that some people don’t even try to place an order by themselves on a website. They look for the phone number and call to place their order. It’s perfectly understandable.

Actually, if the website works well, doesn’t ask for absurd information and the entire process is clear, doing it by phone is probably the slowest and most complicated way to go about it. When you do it by phone the person who answers your call will ask you to dictate all the information needed to generate the order. This includes things like:

  • your email address (to keep you informed of the order status)
  • the complete delivery address
  • your credit card data
  • billing data (if you need an invoice)
  • etc.

He may ask you to actually spell much of this information (for example, the email address or the delivery address), probably several times to make sure he has it correctly written down. Any mistakes can mean the delivery is delayed (because we can’t locate you to get your correct email address or because the carrier has to forward the package to the correct address).

We also have to be sure we indicate accurately the products the customer wants to order and not others (Have you ever shipped a boned ham to somebody who said “boned” over the phone but really wanted it sliced? It’s very amusing.) We have to explain the different shipment speeds and their prices, differences between the various payment methods and how they may affect delivery time, etc. And finally, we have to go through all the data again with the customer to make sure everything is clear. All this information is explained clearly in the ordering process on the website, but is not at all obvious when done over the phone.

Conclusion: This customer would have wasted much less time (and there would be much less risk of mistakes to correct later) if they had placed the order themselves, or even if they had done it by email (sending a list of products they want, the delivery address and choice of payment method). The telephone is clearly the slowest option and the most prone to mistakes.

Waste of time
Possible mistakes

Questions about shipments

This type of call is also very complicated because in most cases where there is really a problem, it is nearly always at the last link in the chain (the carrier’s local branch responsible for delivering the package to the recipient’s home), and the solution depends almost entirely on the carrier. All we can do is oversee the carrier closely to ensure they do everything needed to get the package delivered.

We almost never get calls of this type, for a good reason: most of the time we find out about a problem long before the customer does. We check the status of all our shipments at least twice a day — and more often for express deliveries or when there has been some incident. Whenever we see there may be a problem, we alert the carrier first and then inform the customer.

When we report to the customer, if the solution to the problem depends on them (either to clarify information about the delivery address or to say what date/time of delivery is best), we always recommend they coordinate directly with the carrier to agree on these details. Experience has shown us that this is the quickest way to handle incidents. We also pass on this same information to the carrier to be doubly sure.

Communicating with carriers can be very frustrating (calls on hold, automated voice messages, etc.), especially when a problem drags on, and it is normal for an angry customer indignant with the carrier’s attitude to call us. It is perhaps useful to them to vent their feelings, but it doesn’t help solve the problem. Anyway, before getting to this point, we will usually have intervened and sent a second package with another carrier, or found a similar solution. And once again, giving us information on shipments over the phone involves the same issues as writing down verbal information: it is prone to error.

Conclusion: Our continuous tracking system for shipments has made this type of call disappear almost completely since we have taken over the task of informing customers of any problems. When we received calls of this type, it only served to let customers vent their frustrations because we had already been working on finding a solution for some time.

Waste of time

The summary of this table was quite revealing. In no case did our customer support service add any extra value for our customers, at least in terms of the definition of “value” described above. At best it gave them the chance to vent in a type of call that was very rare. And in the remote case that we could consider a person who called the wrong number to be a “customer”, we had become a free telephone directory service, which at first was very frustrating but then turned out to be very congenial.

In view of all this, we decided to drop our telephone support and put all this energy and resources where they could provide real value for our customers: guaranteeing them fast, practical and useful email support, and day by day improving the information we provide on our website about our products and service.

Note: Maybe somebody at Amazon made an analysis similar to this long before we did, and that’s why it is so hard to find a phone number to call Amazon (we invite the reader to look for it).

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