Hot on HuffPost Tech:

See More Stories
Engadget for the iPhone: download the app now
AOL Tech

Live customer service going the way of the dodo bird

Wal Mart hangs up on customersBack in the day (meaning, only about five years ago), when you needed the customer service department of a company to solve a problem, you simply picked up the phone and talked to a real, live person. That soon gave way to working your way through phone trees more complicated than the schematics of the International Space Station. Gradually, we found ourselves shouting, ""Return a package....reeeee-turn a paaaaack-age!" to disembodied robotic voices that ask why we're calling.

Sick of the process? We are too, so the idea that Wal-Mart would do away with all that filled us with child-like glee. Until we realized what they had in mind.
In an effort to "serve you better," Wal-Mart will no longer make its customers suffer the inhumanity of spending 200 hours on the phone trying to correct an error concerning something you've purchased online. In fact, they're so committed to making sure we don't have issues with dial-in customer service, they've removed the option entirely. That's right, if you need to reach customer service as part of your Wal-Mart shopping experience, you'll need to use the keyboard of your computer, not the keypad on your phone.

Wal-Mart has removed the toll-free customer service number from its Web site, leaving customers two options when they need help with something: email and snail mail. Wow, way to distance yourself from us commoners, Wal-Mart.

Now, nobody loves the Internet more than the bloggers here at Download Squad. We live and breathe computers and would shop for our daily supply of air online if we could. This phone number business, though, is really a symptom of a larger problem. The Internet is a wonderful way for customers and businesses to interact. A well-designed Web site will have the answers to most customer service questions, or the tools needed to find them (order status, shipment tracker, etc.).

Of course, there will always be people who can't find what they need -- and, yes, also the ones that even won't try -- and they'll need to phone in with their issue. After all, serving customers during the entire purchasing process, not just up to the point where you take their money, is what retail is all about. Besides, if a customer can't find the answers they need before they've spent a dime, you can be sure they'll take their money elsewhere and spend it on a site that can do more than just spell customer service.

Most companies still provide (even if somewhat reluctantly, by burying it in an unobvious spot in size 6 font) a phone number for customers to use. We applaud them for the effort. We also realize that real-life customer service representatives aren't as cost-effective as insisting your customers email you, but if a behemoth like Wal-Mart won't spring for the extra scratch to let us talk to a human, is there any hope that smaller companies won't follow suit and yank phone numbers off their Web sites too?

The maddening blur between Internet as a tool and Internet as an obstacle isn't limited to shopping sites, either. Have you ever called your ISO to report your connection is down and been greeted with a recording to "use the troubleshooting tools on the Web site first?" What about the cell phone companies that tell you your "estimated wait time is 15 minutes, but for faster service please use the Web site," then connect you to customer care five seconds later? Or the electric company that urges you to report power outages using the "handy form on the Web site." Uh-huh. We've been there too.

Fortunately, some companies still consider the customer king -- and we're not just talking about Amazon and Even relatively smaller outfits like SecondSpin and Yugster manage to provide phone numbers (and excellent customer service) so visitors can deal with a person on a phone instead of pixels on a screen.

As more and more companies take their business online, it's troubling to see a decreased emphasis on good customer care, and disappointing to see some hide behind computers instead of interacting with the very customers they're trying to lure. The Internet is a wonderful tool that customers can perceive as a help, or a hinderance, to giving away their money. Is Wal-Mart's disappearing phone number a harbinger of things to come? We hope not.

Tags: customer-service, lousy-customer-care, online, shopping, wal-mart, walmart