Wal-Mart Leaves Customers Hanging on the Phone

Susan Hall

I am not the world's most tech-savvy user, as our IT guys here at IT Business Edge can attest. My shopping skills, both off- and online, are pretty well-honed, however. And I generally embrace self-service technologies. To cut to the chase, I buy a fair amount of stuff online.


So I am stunned on a personal, as well as a professional, level by Wal-Mart's decision to introduce the bluntly-named Customer Contact Reduction program and remove the customer-service telephone number from its Web site.


Since it was first reported on a New York Times blog -- and generated a barrage of negative comment -- the retailer apparently had second thoughts. Wal-Mart appears to have restored a customer-service number -- albeit one it makes fairly clear it doesn't want online shoppers using -- to the site. It "buried" the number, putting it where only someone desperate and/or dogged enough to click on practically every link will find it (here), an approach widely attributed to Amazon.com and now used by lots of online retailers.


Though most public reaction to Wal-Mart's move was negative, Customer Experience Crossroads blogger Susan Abbott compliments the retailer -- sort of -- for its honesty and for remaining true to its brand. She writes:

They certainly deserve an award for honesty and transparency -- many organizations have launched programs with this intention, but I have never heard of one that was accurately labeled.

Abbott then adds:

Wal-Mart is all about convenience and low prices. So if they can pull this off, they will reduce costs to serve customers, and perhaps even improve the online experience. If you are shopping at Wal-Mart online, you're not looking for a high-touch experience. You're looking for plentiful, cheap and convenient access to stuff. ... We expect vastly different things from Wal-Mart and from Williams-Sonoma, for example, who's phone number is one click from their home page.

Wal-Mart's rationale makes perfect sense. Everyone knows contact centers are expensive, with costs of $10 to $30 a call, according to Accenture research. Heck, many customers, including me, actually prefer to deal with most issues without being subjected to a lengthy list of phone options, creepy automated voices and sometimes disinterested agents. Wal-Mart says that a "significant" number of calls involved questions about order tracking, an issue that it addressed by enhancing the Web site to make it easier to track orders online.


Maybe so. But I'd liken Web sites to 911 services. Many of the calls fielded by 911 personnel are inappropriate and just plain stupid. But that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of legitimate problems that truly cannot be solved without the intervention of a human being on the other end of a phone line.


Wal-Mart also breaks several key tenets of customer service. Among the top 10 self-service mistakes listed in a CIO.comstory: Viewing cost savings as the only goal. Proceeding without an escalation strategy. Making it too hard to reach live help.


Back to Abbott's point about staying on brand. Let's face it: If you were asked to sum up the appeal of Wal-Mart in one word, chances are it'd be "cheap." Good customer service rarely fits that definition. Pleasant retired person greeting you at the door notwithstanding, Wal-Mart stores don't offer a user-friendly experience either.


On the rare occasion I visit a Wal-Mart store, I emerge feeling that I got some bargains but derived no enjoyment from the process, after slogging through the poorly organized, overly bright aisles crammed overfull of cheap crap. More often than not, I decide it's just not worth it, and don't go there in the first place. (Lest you think me a snob, I'll note here that my favorite retail experiences are with another discount chain where I buy everything from paper towels to clothing, but which I won't name here.)


As consultant John Todor notes in an IT Business Edge interviewThe Art of the Customer Experience


If a customer is buying on convenience or price, there is generally little if any loyalty.

Interestingly, Wal-Mart has invested considerable time, effort and likely money in other ways to improve the online experience. Another New York Times article cites it as a market leader with its Site to Store service, which allows consumers to buy items online and avoid the dreaded shipping fees by having them delivered to a Wal-Mart store.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Oct 4, 2007 3:46 PM Susan A Susan A  says:
A really thoughtful take on this. I have to agree that cost savings should not be the only goal. And there needs to be some way to find a human being to resolve those low-frequency but oddball issues that only a human being can help with. Wal-Mart seems to have a lot of challenges these days -- they are feeling their way, as their current business model seems under some stress. Reply
Oct 10, 2007 9:17 AM Ernie Ernie  says:
The salient point (singular) in the article is that Wal-Mart has built its reputation on being the lowest cost provider. Period. If you want the lowest price, go there. If you want something besides the lowest price, go elsewhere. Why is anyone surprised at this? As the author states, she "derived no enjoyment from the process" of actually visiting a Wal-Mart store. There is, it seems, more to life than low prices, always. Reply
Oct 10, 2007 10:13 AM Don Don  says:
I'm amazed you spoke to Wal-Mart's customer service shortcomings without mentioning the biggest and most obvious transgression of all. You can count on it, no matter which Wal-Mart you visit at any time of day. As a shareholder, I have to ask, why do they have over 35 registers and no more than 3-4 open at a time? Even the 4 "Express" lanes rarely have more than 2 open at one time. They're really missing the quality of service issue here. When a customer is finished shopping, they just want to get heck out of the store and go home. Standing in line with all those closed registers makes a frustrating experience become intolerable. I'm selling my stock. Reply
Jun 9, 2008 9:33 AM terry wagar terry wagar  says:
clackamas walmart in portland oregon frames people as pedo's so they can murder them and get away with it, they are hideing a man named eric carlson, he worked there for over a year around mid 2007 and mid 2008, he died his hair black and got a new identity from his friends in authority and now goes by the name gashel, last name unknown by me. Reply
Jun 21, 2008 12:50 PM terry wagar terry wagar  says:
In portland oregon, Joan Wagar and Eric Carlson are in A Murder conspiracy together.And Clackamas Walmart are acttively helping them by hideing Eric's employment there from me and my family.For over A year now Eric Carlson has been going by the name gashel, last name unknown by me, he dyed his hair black, and Walmart agreed to hide his Identity from my daughter, who also worked at that store.Joan and Eric have friends in Authority protecting Joan and Eric from prosecution.I have reported this repeatedly to the Authority's and they are ignoring Joan and Eric's CONSPIRACY.I would be more than happy to Testify to this but the Authority's are covering this up so my testimony would simply dissapear.My name is Terry Wagar and Im backing up these charges.Nomatter how many people Joan and Eric poisoned the Authority's here in portland Oregon refuse to arrest them.Im making these charges public because of the blatent coverup of these charges.why is Walmart hideing A BodyDouble? Reply
Apr 1, 2009 7:38 PM Joe Joe  says: in response to Don

I actually enjoy the expereince of "hunting" down an open register with a person.... They double them, one row behind another... which is GOOD for me, in that many shoppers do not see that the second register is open, and bam, I move in their for the slot !

Have FUN, when you shop

Jul 16, 2010 3:18 PM Diana Diana  says:

The LEAST Walmart.com could've done, is to given their loyal customers the common courtesy of letting them know that some BIG changes have been made on their dot com site...not just that we CANNOT call them anymore, but changes in how we PLACE our order AND that we cannot pay at the STORE anymore (when we order "Site to Store").

I really don't want or need them apologizing to me for any inconvenience, they just need to put all these major changes in CLEAR VIEW on their homepage to spare their LOYAL customers distress. After all, it is these same loyal customers who made their billion dollar industry what it is TODAY!!!


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