A few years ago, I was getting ready to sell a house. My existing mortgage company had been purchased by another company and my account had been transferred. However, when it was transferred, the permissions that allow customer service representatives to do basic, but important, tasks like provide a payoff amount, were not available to them.
Thus began a nearly 20-day struggle to do nothing more than get a dollar amount that was owed to them so they could be paid off. You'd think they might actually want that.
As I navigated the maze of departments, I found out that one small part of the company had the ability to change the permissions on my account and free me from this labyrinth of hell. Unfortunately, the people in that department had no phones. That's right, they were cut off. I wasn't sure if they were some secret covert agency operating within the confines of a home loan organization or if this company was just idiotic. Finally, I found a customer service rep who had a friend who worked in that department. That is how the issue was resolved: I know a guy.
After reading about Steve Jansen's recent bout with Comcast, I thought back to that event and realized, for some big companies, giving customers access to them is something they don't really want.
I've been in the web design and development business since the late '90s and one thing that has not changed for the vast majority of commercial businesses is that contact information needs to be easy to find on a company website. This is a basic premise for any business, online or off. If your customers can't reach you, it will make it tough for them to patronize your business.
But that rule doesn't apply to large corporations, particularly those with thousands if not millions of customers. For them, they make their customers jump through hoop after hoop on a website to find a phone number and many don't list them at all.
On the websites for Comcast and AT&T, two of the biggest cable providers in the country, it is nearly impossible to find a phone number. Visitors have to click through a series of links and are prompted to answer questions in hopes they might solve the problem themselves. Frequently asked questions are offered up in lieu of phone numbers and emails.
The same is true for large computer companies like Dell and Apple. I found similar issues on big oil companies. Exxon/Mobil had only a contact form and no numbers, plus you have to accept their terms and conditions, which is an enormous document no one will read but the lawyers who were paid to write it. BP's contact page simply went blank. Shell had a pretty decent contact page, but the link was buried in the page's footer. Ditto Conoco. Only Chevron has the most easy-to-find and comprehensive contact information.
Then there is the problem of getting someone to respond if your only reasonable option is e-mail. Have you tried it? Give it a shot sometime and see how it goes. While I'm sure some companies are very responsive -- particularly the ones that want to sell you something -- many more simply are not, which is hard to imagine considering how much communication is done now electronically.
But when it comes to the phone, it seems fairly clear that the reason for this kind of shenanigans is simple: companies don't want you to call them. But why? It's most likely because phone calls cost them money, from the cost of the customer service people who have to answer them to the phone bank equipment and offices right down to the cost of the toll free call. It's cheaper to force customers through a maze of questions and hope they find the answer or give up trying.
With companies like AT&T and Comcast, this is a dicey proposition. It's one thing if computer companies expect you to have a little tech knowledge, but it's hard to imagine the average person understanding even the basics of an Internet router.
Of course, with the problems that many have reported with telephone service at Comcast and others, it might not be of much help anyway. Some companies are embracing social media like Twitter with mixed results. But, in truth, with only a limited number of cable providers -- in some areas, only one -- most of us don't have much choice leaving us little recourse and giving these corporations free rein to do pretty much whatever they want.
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