Hanging Up The Telephone?


As more and more companies effectively rip out their telephone lines to replace them with online channels, the accessibility and speed of the Internet seems to be heralded as a more effective way of businesses communicating with their customers.

But once the dial tones fades, will online customer service just shine a light on faults within in a brand?

What comes first, the lexis or the attitude change? When "paperless" was heralded as the future, banks and other service providers began a marketing campaign, gently chivvying their customers to bask in the ease of paperless bills, statements and other notices.

All this, they promised, would make things easier for customers and would benefit the environment creating a double whammy of warmth that almost shrouded the money savings bonuses paperless communication afforded.

Then, as the advent of Internet communication became more sophisticated and easier to use, the germ of telephone-less customer services began to fruit. For some, this was a win-win situation. In one fail swoop, companies could brand themselves as fully in step with the changing communication needs of the customer.

As letters were passed over for snappy emails and text messages, instant messaging grew from AOL chat to MSN messenger followed by more bells and whistles via Skype. Facebook and Google also stepped into the ring adding IM features to their platform and proving that consumers were comfortable with instant but text based communication.

Organisations took notice. Brands like Virgin and Ikea offered instant messaging services on their website advising customers on bandwidths and bed choices.

Banks and other services having seen the benefits of moving more operations online seemed reluctant however to bypass telephone customer services entirely. In fact, brands like First Direct champion the fact that customers can speak to 'real people' and just recently Santander announced that it was moving its call centre from India after complaints from customers.

It seems then, that telephone contact really does represent reliability and security even though online shopping has lead a march against the high street with Woolworth's folding under the pressure of websites like Amazon and the online presence of Argos.

But the benefits of an online customer services is undeniably attractive. Quick, mostly cheap and amazingly time saving, directing customers to a web page and/or communicating online can allow businesses to spend more time creating better products, bypassing the "press 1, 2 or 3 for menu" service that has come to plague consumers.

Where business leads others try to follows. Visit your local authority website and you'll be hard pressed to find a telephone number for anything. Rather, customers are encouraged to visit various FAQs or send emails with the only response being a bounce back promising a response in 10 to 12 working days. Never an individual response to be seen.

Clearly in times of austerity it makes sense for public services to mimic some of the more agile behaviours of business. The problem lies however in the half-hearted way these behaviours are undertaken, with out-of-date web pages boasting downloadable PDFs (flying in the face of the "paperless" revolution) and broken links. If businesses are to take advantage of the benefits of online channels and move away from telephone customer services, it is clear that the foundations have to be in place.

A usable, informative and regularly updated website coupled with personalised text based communications will show that there is another human being at the other side of the screen, gaining trust and proving once again that the human touch still reigns supreme.

Photos (cc) Royce Bair