Customer Data

Wal-Mart to Online Customers: Don’t Call Us

Customers who shop online at may soon have no way to speak with a live person over the phone to ask questions.

Thanks to a new “Customer Contact Reduction” program, the retailer by next week will remove its toll-free customer service support number, according to a Tuesday report in the New York Times. Instead, online customers will have to rely on self-help features on the Web site, the Times reported.

The change is being made in part because the Wal-Mart site was recently updated, Wal-Mart told the Times, and also because a sizable chunk of calls to the customer support line have traditionally been just to track orders — something the Web site is now better able to handle, the company said.

Wal-Mart officials declined to confirm or elaborate on the new program, which reportedly will not affect telephone customer service for the company’s stores.

A ‘Coarse’ Move

Wal-Mart’s move is reminiscent of a similar decision made by Sprint Nextel in July to “fire” more than a thousand of its customers for calling too frequently with complaints. It also suggests the possibility of a trend in which companies are putting their figurative feet down in deciding what’s too much when it comes to serving their customers.

In today’s competitive climate, however, it’s not clear whether such a strategy is a wise one.

“It’s certainly against the grain — I have to give them credit for being candid in choosing the name of this program,” Brad Cleveland, president of the International Customer Management Institute, told CRM Buyer.

“They might be getting a lot of repeat calls, and that might be the driver behind this move, but there are steps companies can take today to parse those calls out using technology while still leaving themselves available for other kinds of contact,” Cleveland said. “I think it’s a very coarse kind of move.”

Offloading Repeat Calls

Sprint went through a season several years ago where it was not very accessible to customers, Cleveland added, and there was a “big backlash, with letters to the editor in the Wall Street Journal,” he said. “They ended up putting back in place several of the services they had thought they could get by without.”

If there is a trend today, it’s the way Web sites are increasingly looking for ways to offload simple, repetitive contacts, Cleveland added — “nobody wants to handle those, and we shouldn’t have to, if we’re doing things right,” he said. “But simply cutting off accessibility altogether isn’t a smart thing to do. There are ways to do this without throwing the baby out with the bath water.”

However much Wal-Mart has improved its site, there are always going to be issues where customers really need to talk with someone, not just for their own benefit but also for the company’s, with things it needs to know, he added.

Against the Grain

Customers who call to follow up on Internet transactions are often just looking for peace of mind, Michael Bergdahl, author and former Wal-Mart executive, told CRM Buyer. “With all the concerns about online payments, they’re probably making sure they didn’t just place an order with someone who’s draining their account.”

However, to cut such customers off from that peace of mind goes counter to Sam Walton’s original philosophy, Bergdahl added, much the way Wal-Mart’s decision to discontinue its layaway service this fall does too.

“Sam Walton believed customers were No. 1, and he believed in customer service,” he explained. “There’s no other way to see these moves than as reducing services, and while I can see the cost advantages, I don’t see any others.”

‘The Wrong Direction’

Customers clearly want the human intervention, Bergdahl added, and customers drive the services retailers must provide. “So to remove those services seems to be going in the wrong direction,” he explained. “It’s not a good message for your customers, and if you competitors are still offering phone support, why shouldn’t customers then go to them instead?”

Bottom line: “Good customer service is a competitive advantage, and it’s not the case that technology can handle it alone,” Bergdahl concluded. “Retailing is a human business — it takes human interaction.”

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