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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