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Customer service online is all important, and businesses should be making it easy for customers to contact them to resolve any issues.

However, some sites seem determined to prevent, or least make it difficult for you to contact them. Whether through missing or hard to find contact details, charging for customer service calls, or taking weeks to reply to emails. 

Perhaps these firms think they are saving money or easing pressure on customer service staff by doing this, but I fear they are just annoying the hell out of their customers, which is rarely a good idea. 

Why should websites provide easy contact options? 

To avoid customer frustration

Companies need to see retention as being as important as acquisition. According to KISSmetrics, the average value of a lost customer is $243, while 71% of consumers have ended their relationship with a company due to poor customer service.

Customer frustration has to go somewhere

Made.com launched three years ago, and a post we published on the launch has continued to attract comments from unhappy customers. One of the reasons, as explained in this post, is that Made.com didn't have a contact number, meaning aggrieved customers were choosing whatever channel they can to vent their fury. 

This is something which has now been rectified, and the 'contact us' link on the site leads to a contact form and a clear customer services number:

According to Made.com CEO and co-founder Ning Li, the company has looked to improve on initial mistakes, and has added various contact options:

Customer feedback is so important to us and we’ve worked really hard to tackle any concerns. We now have an ever-growing customer service team in place covering phones, email and live chat, our phone number is much more prominent on the site and we have a dedicated social media team to respond to queries. We also opened our Notting Hill showroom last September, where customers can meet the team and see the products before they buy.

Avoid reputation issues and dodgy search results

One consequence of poor customer service and contact options is that customer complaints end up on social media, online forums and elsewhere, all of which is indexed by the search engines. This isn't what you want customers to see when they search for your brand: 

Customers may need help to complete transactions

Customer support isn't just about after-sales and handling complaints. Effective support can help push customers towards a purchase by answering key questions and helping them to overcome any issues with the process.

Indeed, a recent survey (admittedly from a live chat provider) found that 83% of consumers needed some kind of help to complete an online purchase

Sites that make it too hard for consumers to contact them...

eBuyer

This site does have a help link in the top corner of the page, which leads to this contact hub page: 

]

This looks fine, but eBuyer wants to charge customers 10p per minute to call with any queries. If your order are late or they have a problem with the service received, having to pay for calls isn't going to put customers in the best mood. 

What's more, if the call queues I experienced are anything to go by, then customers will resent the charge even more. 

There are alternatives though. You can write to them, which nobody under 80 is going to do, or then there's the 'Enote'. This sounds a bit like an email, so maybe it's a good alternative to the call centre? 

After clicking on Enotes, it becomes clear that eBuyer doesn't just want you to send an Enote straight away. No, why not check out the FAQs first? 

Though it does place another barrier, this is reasonable enough, as common customer queries are often covered by FAQs, and it may benefit the customer to point them to the right place. 

However, if the FAQs don't answer the customer's question, perhaps this Enote will allow them to get their problem solved? 

Actually, no. Unless the query is about login and registration or recycling. Useless. 

This essentially means that customers are forced onto a premium rate phone line for any questions. Small wonder that a quick Google search finds a number of unhappy eBuyer customers:

 

giffgaff

Want to contact giffgaff by phone? Forget it. It just isn't an option. Want to email the company? Forgot that as well, the only email address I could find is for commercial enquiries. 

So that's the two most popular online customer service channels out of the way. The remaining options are a (very good, as it happens) FAQs section, and 'Ask an Agent'. 

'Ask an Agent' is basically a contact form which allows you to submit a query, but only promises a response within 24 hours. Not much use when you're stuck at an airport and your sim doesn't work...

Ryanair

Needless to say, Ryanair doesn't exactly bend over backwards to allow people to contact them. It's a case of rooting around the FAQs or a choice of two phone numbers, one which charges 10p per minute, the other a priority service at £1 /min.

The company was the subject of a EU decision based on its refusal to offer an email contact address. Perhaps as a result of this, it now offers a lovely contact form: 

Barclaycard

The 'contact us' hub on Barclycard is easy enough to find, and a range of phone numbers are easy to find. However, it's not hard to spot a trend when you look through. Any numbers to do with selling things (new applications, card insurance, personal loans) have an 0800 number. 

Everything else, such as customer services and emergency card replacement are 0844 or 0845 numbers, which cost 5p per minute upwards, and much more from a mobile. 

This gives you a clue as to the relative importance of acquisition and customer retention for Barclaycard. Attracting a new customer can cost five times as much as keeping an existing one so this is a short-sighted approach. 

There is an email option, though Barclaycard gives no timescale for a response and, 30 minutes after sending the email, I've had no confirmation that someone is dealing with it. 

How it should be done

An ideal example isn't easy to find, and I wanted to find one from a company big enough. As a consumer I do object to paid phone numbers but, other than that, John Lewis provides a good example. 

You simply click the contact us link and you get this page. No need to route customers around FAQ sections (though there should be clear links) or make them jump through hoops.

Just present the contact options clearly:

Any examples (good or bad) that you'd like to share? Are chargeable contact numbers acceptable? Please leave your opinions below...

Graham Charlton

Published 25 March, 2013 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

2565 more posts from this author

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Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh

Never one to miss an opportunity to give a cheeky wee Schuh plug... We list our contact number at the top of every page. You can call us, email us, tweet us, FB message/post us, text chat is or even have a video call with us. We won't make you wait on the phone for ages, we'll typically answer in 4 rings. If you go to http://m.schuh.co.uk we've made sure that if you tap the phone number on your mobile, it'll start the call for you.

We don't see customer service as some sort of hassle or unnecessary expense, we see it as part of our service proposition. The amount of positive feedback we get about our customer service is heartening.

over 3 years ago

Jennifer Smith

Jennifer Smith, Product Leader, Consumer Engagement at MasterCard

Absolutely - I was just on this site (Scotrail) over the weekend and having a live chat service available was fantastic. While a low ticket and somewhat inelastic item - the easily accessible customer service plus the courteous experience had me confident about which route to take and purchasing a ticket in advance. Now hoping the actual train service lives up to the booking service!

over 3 years ago

Justin Saunders

Justin Saunders, E-commerce Manager at Daylong.co.uk

We feature a freephone number at the top of every page but does that matter, with the increase in mobile usage how many people are going to go for the landline anyway. What can be done to make it cost effective for mobile users? I suppose the answer is live chat which we simply do not have the resource to manage and with such a niche product could not in the foreseeable future outsource it.

We also like schuh get many positive remarks about the helpfulness of our sales/ customer service staff.

looks like it could be an options soon http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-17610232

Justin Saunders www.daylong.co.uk

over 3 years ago

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James Curtis, Online Marketing Manager at The Wandsworth Group

Weird how companies using paid numbers still display prominent 'from abroad' telephone numbers - wonder how many calls coming in from the 'abroad' numbers are domestic? I know it's what I do...

over 3 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@James a crafty trick ;)

over 3 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Stuart Perhaps I should have used Schuh as an example instead of John Lewis.

One question though: why charge people to call customer service? Do you not worry that customers will resent having to pay for the call, or is it just that everyone does it so people half expect it?

@Jennifer As someone who only calls customer services as a last resort, and gets frustrated by slow email response, I think live chat is an excellent option.

over 3 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Justin Great idea - do you know what percentage call from mobiles? At least with an 0800 number, the calls will come out of many mobile users' free talk time, whereas 0845s are always charges.

However, there is the problem of having to redial without the first zero.

over 3 years ago

Lili Boev

Lili Boev, Group Account Director at dotmailerEnterprise

I have found Natwest's customer service absolutely brilliant. I don't think I've ever had to wait more than a few mins for a response. They are always available and have plenty of phone numbers to call.
There is a cheeky way to get around paid for phone numbers. This works especially well with telecom companies. Call their sales team and ask them to call you back as your credit is running out. When they call you back ask to be put through to customer services.

over 3 years ago

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Scott Heitland, Chief Operating Officer at Pretium Solutions

Great deep dive and analysis here, Graham.

As someone who works with firms to improve the customer experience, I'm intrigued by the things that firms do and don't do that impact the amount of effort customers have to expend doing business with them.

The Corporate Executive Board came out with some compelling research a few years ago supporting the proposition that the most valuable action a company can take to improve the customer experience is to reduce the customer’s perception of the amount of effort they have to expend.

You would think that firms would wise up and understand how important it is for generating customer loyalty to do something so basic as to make it easy for customers to contact them the way they (the customers) want to. Common sense is not often commonly practiced.

over 3 years ago

Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh

@Graham, not sure why it was decided on an 0845, I'll find out! Doesn't seem to cause any resentment

over 3 years ago

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Olly Percival, KODIME

Somewhat surprisingly Microsoft actually do quite a good job. When my Xbox broke, I was able to chat to someone online who actually knew things, it was quite refreshing.

over 3 years ago

Albie Attias

Albie Attias, Ecommerce Director at King of Servers Ltd

It's worth mentioning that the person you get to speak to when phoning goes a long way to dictating the quality of customer service too. If you have a technical query for example, far better to speak to a technician straight away rather than reciting your issue to a 'customer service' agent who then relays you to another department/agent and you have to start again. Even worse when you get bounced around the organisation multiple times talking to clueless people.

And dont get me started on automated phone answering systems...

over 3 years ago

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Adam

Calling the international number is what I usually do. Even if it puts you through to the wrong department, they usually transfer you. This works well for HMRC!

A similar trick would work for Barclaycard, I'd imagine - call the 0800 number and they'll likely transfer you to the correct department.

Also, there are landline numbers you can call from mobiles that forward you to 0800 numbers.

There are lots of tricks to avoid the problems highlighted in this article, but the fact that they have to be used isn't going to win you any favours from customers.

over 3 years ago

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David Coghlan

Interestingly the impression of good customer service is mostly linked to the response time to a query as opposed to how quickly the issue is actually resolved. Knowing that someone is working to help you out is often as comforting as have the problem solved. Thats a quick win for sure!

over 3 years ago

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Rebecca

Mailchimp are just superb. They really WANT you to contact them if you're having a problem with their service, so they get a chance to put things right - at least that's my impression, as a customer. They have a 'Support' link right there at the top of every page, and offer super-accessible, fast and effective live chat with an advisor too. Live chat is the way to go, IMHO! The point is that it's crucial that customer revise and support always be built into the structure of any business that wants to have customers, not viewed as an inconvenient add-on.

over 3 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Adam Good tips, and I think there's a mobile app which finds free versions of customer service numbers.

@Albie - Exactly. If companies can ensure that issues are dealt with effectively then this is the best way to keep customers happy. One problem I find, especially with big firms, is that there is an emphasis on meeting stats and targets, rather then ensuring than complaints and problems are dealt with.

over 3 years ago

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Tim Brown

Really interesting article. One of the main areas of topic for our members at The Top 50 Companies for Customer Service Programme this year is reducing Customer Effort. This starts with the ease to find a phone number or email address, but then goes on to look at once that number has been found how easy it is to speak to the right person. Minimal levels of IVR is of course a big part of reducing this effort once the number has been tracked down.

over 3 years ago

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Ketharaman Swaminathan

Customers of our HEATMAP360 social intelligence platform have reported that 20-30% of so-called service requests from existing customers are actually one step away from new sales
(http://www.gtm360.com/HEATMAP360/index_heatmap360.php#uc). Companies who make it difficult for their customers to contact their service center are walking away from a goldmine of additional revenues via cross-selling and upselling.

over 3 years ago

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shulgin

Interesting that two of the positive examples listed were furniture retailers. Well done John Lewis and Made.com

over 3 years ago

Seema Kumari

Seema Kumari, Head of Digital Marketing at Hearst Magazines

The local number debate is an interesting one. I'm always one to promote local numbers on emails and websites but am constantly informed and told off by our customer service agency as local numbers do not give them the flexibility to outsource in crisis scenarios where call volumes are higher than they could handle. In addition, local numbers do not give any disaster recovery such as call diverting (should it be required)

In the grand scheme of things how often does this actually happen vs the number of people you can turn into customers if you have a friendly number advertised?

Also, if you don't want to dial an 0844/5/70 number go to http://www.saynoto0870.com/ which is a great website which converts your 08 number to a non-geographical alternative telephone number.

If you're only going to give an email address as a contact mechanism you need to have a 2 hour SLA 365 days a year like asos-who are a brilliant example of a company who doesn’t need to have a contact number on their site but still satisfy their customers and respond within the hour on boxing day!

over 3 years ago

Gerry Brown

Gerry Brown, Managing Partner at Cascadia Connections

One of the biggest customer services wheezes in the UK is that many of the companies that use 0871 and 0845 numbers in the UK would never dare to do it in the US and Canada, where they always offer 1-800 service. Some prominent examples are Dell, Air Canada, Virgin Atlantic IHG (Holiday Inn) - Why do they do it in the UK - Because the long suffering, but ultimately timid, British consumers, who are great at complaining to each other, but not to the companies that are taking advantage of them, let them get away with it.

There's a great web site called Saynoto0870 that offers alternative numbers, and as someone has already pointed out, most companies also offer "outside the UK" numbers, which can be accessed from the UK as well.

over 3 years ago

Tom Howlett

Tom Howlett, Digital Marketing Executive at Koozai

It is always a frustration trying to contact companies online, finding the right people and receiving a prompt reply. Especially for the larger companies/websites.

Some sites do go the other way though and bother you with a 'chat live' pop-up, although sometimes these just send you to a contact form.

I suppose it is easier to contact some businesses through social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

A website should still have easy contact methods and lay them out clearly. If a site even went to the lengths of telling me that it may be a while before I receive a response due to the sheer number of messages they get, that's usually fine - at least I have a reason.

over 3 years ago

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Tunde Awe

Nice one Graham. National Express is another unfriendly example. It takes more than 10min to get a response on the premium customer service line. Even when you take the pain to log a complaint online, it does not resolve the issue! Good training to curtail frequency of patronage....

over 3 years ago

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Paul Donovan, Consultant at Paul Donovan & Company

Here's my 1 cents worth. I rarely shop anywhere other than Amazon and eBay. If Amazon doesn't have it I go to eBay and choose top rated sellers as I know for the most part any query will get answered (and they might have a phone number).

On Amazon if I have an issue 95% of these can get solved through their CS interface in my account. On the rare occasion that hasn't worked I escalate by emailing the boss and then "executive" CS get involved and they always sort things out.

If Amazon had a number (I could find) I'd never use it, personally, likewise on eBay. If you get stuck on eBay the threat of a negative review (in the 5% of cases maybe) will usually get things resolved, I've maybe done that once.. I've probably used Amazon and eBay equally over the years (eBay have used and rare stuff I was interested in) and placed over 1,000 orders on each.

That said, anyone who wants to break into this market would likely do well to have a phone number displayed as more importantly than any of the above I think is confidence - I think people relax when they see this and your conversion increases.

I don't put much store in the other reasons given above:
- large % of customers need help - really?, massive generalisation, depends on the type of product/service. Unless you have massive GMs anything more than a CS:delivery rate of 15% is going to be unsustainable
- putting a phone number up ISN'T going to stop negative reviews if your fulfilment is crap, at some point someone's going let other people know they had rubbish service (some element). OK granted it might reduce or minimise it
- ditto for customer frustration in general, take a look at some of the top sellers on eBay, the vast majority still get negative reviews despite the fact they have a number and clearly care about CS - some customers are just unreasonable and there's nothing you'll do to stop them being so publicly

If you're a small business be aware that having a team in place to provide coverage for phones is not easy - my experience was at best you'll get 60% hours out of CS (this was for smaller organisations), CS get sick more than any other group working for you, the turnover is usually very high, there's often a high investment in training (once you get that call you have to be ready for it), and lastly you need good systems to be able to manage and route calls around - fail if someone calls and gets the engaged tone. Services like Twilio help but until recently at least you'd still need to invest in hardware...

over 3 years ago

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CBIL360 Inc, Web Designer at CBIL360

@TOM excellent tips agree with your opinion.

We have to take care to make it easy for customers to contact us easily through our toll-free phone number, contact form, or through social media profiles whatever it may be - Don't make them to think to reach you - Make it Simple.

over 3 years ago

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Craig Sullivan

Good article and an often neglected topic.

I have some insights to share that chime with this.

(1) Using paid numbers

Disaster - I've split tested this in the UK and the answer is - that it impacted conversion. Now this is for a business that encourages calls so if your is discouraging calls - this might be the answer you need <grin>

One big issue here is understanding number codes - in LOTS of asking about this issue, I uncovered that there are 3 classes of numbers mentally - local calls, free national calls and 'those bloody funny numbers'.

'Funny numbers' is basically a catch-all for 'those bloody paid numbers that cost an arm and a leg to call'. Strange but 0203 numbers get lumped in here because people don't 'Understand' that they are not funny numbers but a local national call.

Be very careful about using any number other than local or 0800 (or equivalent in each market) - it will dampen conversion if it's seen as costly. This leads me to point (2)

(2) Call costs landscape

Be VERY CLEAR about the costs involved in calling. If it's free - say so! The best way to say that you are low cost is to quote internationally "Local call rates apply. Free if you have monthly minutes." - that works for local/standard numbers very well.

If you have a costs message that explains things clearly, you'll get more calls. I know - I've split tested it.

(3) RIngback and other stuff

As Stuart and others have said - offer ALL contact methods. If you don't offer a timed ringback service (call me at [17:30] dropdown type thing) - then you're losing out. For two reasons - people try to keep call costs down and also - they may be at work and can't call now but want to control WHEN the call takes place.

Offer as many options as possible and track usage and contribution towards conversion (online or offline). Options to try include:

Chat
Ringback
Low cost calling (clearly explained) or a freephone number
Video chat (Skype, Facetime, Other)
Email (a small % still prefer)
Social
VIP numbering (high value customer, priority phone line)
etc. etc.

Offer all the contact options and then work out the value to you by tracking. Which leads me to point 4.

(4) Mobile

Mobile contact is about FAST finding of the phone number. You need to have an experience (responsive or not) that let's people find and tap the phone number really quickly. I recently studied a retailer who had low calls (they had no mobile site). When I tested with people - 10 of them took over 80 seconds to find a phone number. This is why their calls were lower than expected.

(5) Tracking

If you don't do phone tracking, you're measuring without a huge chunk of data in front of you. I['ve found on most sites that analysing this exposes inefficiencies in PPC spend of 10, 20 or 30% potential saving. Some keywords get you many more calls than others - and if you don't count this and work from online data only, your data is basically WRONG.

One small point on tracking - people worry about number recognition but this is so small these days, I wouldn't fret.

Also - see your contact us page as an opportunity to *sell* the service and the many contact options you make available. Use it to shape, flow or route the customer to the fastest contact point and try to personalise this flow - it's worth money.

Nice artlcle and keep being open, transparent, helpful and delighting people!

over 3 years ago

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Dee Roche

Unfortunately Graham your experiences mirror what we found in the 2012 Eptica Customer Experience Study – retailers only provided answers to around half (53%) of common questions on their websites and took an average of 66 hours to respond to emails! More in our blog post on the research at http://eptica.wordpress.com/2012/12/12/why-customer-service-is-key-to-a-merry-christmas-for-retailers/

over 3 years ago

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Philip Wolstenholme

It's a little bit unfair to include GiffGaff in this list as a key premise of their business (almost a USP) is that almost all customer support is crowd-sourced by GiffGaff members through their forums and knowledgebase.

The ask an agent form is only for billing and other top-level enquiries, with the forum handling 'what are my MMS settings?' style queries.

GiffGaff customers should hopefully recognise that the lack of a call centre is what allows the operator to offer good value packages.

over 3 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Philip Perhaps you're right, though I'm not sure this model will work unless customers can access help quickly when they need it.

over 3 years ago

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Ben Goodwin, Email marketing manager at Personal

One for Seema RE: local numbers. You can do all of the things you've listed with a decent VOIP phone system, we use local numbers and can set up the call routing and overflow however we like.

over 3 years ago

Seema Kumari

Seema Kumari, Head of Digital Marketing at Hearst Magazines

Thanks Ben, that's good to know!

about 3 years ago

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