February 1, 2023
There’s been a breach of the Jonny Boston’s International Facebook page. Jonathan Kiper, the New Hampshire restaurant’s owner, is no longer able to access his personal Facebook account; or, in turn, the page for his business, where he once kept customers updated about specials and deals, reports Vox.
He has tried to get back in, going through the online process to report that his account has been compromised multiple times and sending in a picture of his driver’s license to prove he’s, well, himself. But thus far, his efforts have been to no avail. He always gets tripped up at the last verification step—the one where Facebook sends a test code—because it appears the hacker has changed the account’s phone number.
It’s actually two phone numbers that are at the heart of Kiper’s problem: the hacker’s and Facebook’s—or rather, Facebook’s lack thereof. There’s no working customer service line that Kiper can find to call and explain what’s going on, so he’s out of luck. “There is a business number for Facebook you can call, but it just tells you they have no customer service and to use the website,” he says. Not exactly, you know, helpful when the website option doesn’t work.
Facebook is not an outlier here. Plenty of companies make it impossible or at the very least very difficult for consumers to call: Frontier Airlines announced in November that it was axing phone-based customer service. You can get through to Amazon if you absolutely have to, but you’ve got to go through multiple steps to find a little button to get them to call you.
In the age of the Internet—and with companies constantly looking to cut costs—businesses big and small are cutting off the option for consumers to get on the phone and talk to an actual human being to resolve their problems. It’s not great for anyone involved.
“When there’s no option to pick up the phone, at some point it obviously creates all kinds of havoc in customers’ lives,” says Ryan Buell, a Harvard Business School professor who specializes in customer service interactions. “It can lead customers to behave in inefficient and counterproductive ways.”
He adds, “There’s a straight-up clear hierarchy. The cost to talk to a live person face-to-face is always going to be greater than the cost to talk to a live person on the phone; which is going to be greater than the cost to talk to a live person over chat, which is going to be greater than the cost to talk to some kind of automated solution. In the middle there is also email, and chat is more expensive than email, which is more expensive than non-human.”
Indeed, explains Kejia Hu, an assistant professor of operations management at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management, “Initially, all companies had phone call services, and then some firms started saying, ‘Sorry, we are only going to be reachable on certain days of certain hours. Then, maybe if you called off-hours, you got connected with someone offshore, and eventually, you got connected with someone offshore off the bat.
“It’s not for service quality, it’s for cost control,” Hu said. Then customer service moved to live chat options, often with a reply from a template, because automation also saves money, and then to robots and AI. The pandemic made everything worse, because many companies that did have in-person call centers shut them down altogether. It’s increasingly difficult for companies to get call center employees in the door and to get them to stick around.
Even if companies do have options to call, they’re often ineffective and have a ton of automated options before you get to a real person, if you ever do. “You have to go through all the menus, you say, ‘I want to talk with a person,’ you have to wait for an hour,” Hu said. “Even though they have the call option, it’s almost like no call at all.”
Vox contacted many people for this story—many of whom had found themselves somewhere between “huh” and “wait” in a recent customer service experience with no call option. Kelley Diveto, from Florida, got a wine fridge as a Christmas gift in December 2021, and in the spring of 2022, it malfunctioned. She’s sent repeated emails to the manufacturer, a company called Bodega, with no response, even though the website claims all emails are answered in 24 hours. She received a handful of responses from its Facebook page before asking for a phone number, at which point she was left on read. “They just ignored me,” she says. She’s given up hopes of getting the fridge fixed. “Life goes on.”
One person whom Vox heard from signed up for a year-long Tidal music streaming subscription, couldn’t find a number to call, and was finally able to get a refund only after reaching out to the Better Business Bureau and filing a complaint.
Another person can’t find a phone number for Uber to change her phone number from a U.K. one to a U.S. one, so she can’t figure out how to use the app stateside.
Another has been trying unsuccessfully to cancel a magazine subscription for a year and can’t get through on the phone, email, or Twitter. They were recently in New York City, where the magazine is based, and contemplated going to the company’s headquarters but “figured they’d never let me up to talk to someone.”
Bodega did not respond to a request for comment. Tidal and Uber reached out asking for the customers’ information so they could try to address what happened, and Uber said answers to common questions and 24/7 support were available through its app, although there’s no number.
These types of experiences, where there’s no one on the other end of the line, can be harrowing for customers, especially in situations where they’re anxious, explained Michelle Shell, visiting assistant professor of operations and technology management at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. Research she and Buell have worked on shows that it’s “critically important” for consumers to feel as though they have permission to reach out to customer service in moments of distress.
“Eliminating human contact when people are feeling anxious causes them to be dissatisfied with their own decision-making, even if they’re making good decisions,” Shell said. People really do want to talk to a human being when they’re on edge, or at least have the option to—Shell found that even having a little button to talk to a real agent in a chatbot puts people at ease. “Reintroducing notions of human contact by giving them these options to connect with the company, even if they don’t actually use it, can restore trust.”
In taking away customers’ ability to reach out to an actual person, companies are largely seeing dollar signs. Cutting a call center obviously helps the bottom line. But they may be missing other, less obvious costs as well.
Part of the reason we’re like this is that companies have sort of trained us to be this way. Consumers have learned that being a little extra is often the way to get their way. (This does not give anyone an excuse to have a giant meltdown at a service worker.)
“When the experience that we have becomes frustrating, annoying, angering, and it undermines our trust in the organization, it can actually lead us, as customers, to behave in some pretty counterproductive ways from the perspective of the company, where we’re just out for blood. We want our problem solved, but we don’t care what it’s going to take to get us there,” Buell said.
If there is a call option, customers almost immediately ask for a supervisor because they’ve come to believe that’s the way to get their problems solved. They start yelling right off the bat, making life for the worker on the other end of the line—who’s not at fault at all—awful and making it harder to keep and recruit workers going forward.
Emails and chat communications get spicy quickly, and customers issue threats in an attempt to move their issue along. They try to take control by complaining on social media, hoping—often correctly—that an angry tweet will get them some attention.
Companies don’t exactly love the social media complaining, but it’s also less expensive for them to deal with than, again, operating a call center. “It’s almost like a probabilistic game,” Hu said. Say there’s a flight delay and an airline gives out vouchers, but only to the people who complain online—it’s a way to compensate the loudest customers, but not everyone. She said she’s heard anecdotally from social media people that companies sometimes look at how many followers a person has to see how they’ll respond. “If you have a lot of followers, you get better treatment,” she said.
Research contact: @voxdotcom