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Why Your Customers Don’t Want to Talk to You

Great blog post today over at Harvard Business Review  entitled “Why Your Customers Don’t Want to Talk to You”.  Finally, some  bona fide research that supports my long held belief that customer  self-service is way more than just a leftover fad from the dot com era  but is more of a cultural evolution that is now past its tipping point.


Here are a few of my favorite gems  from Matt Dixon’s and Lara Ponomareff’s blog post and referenced HBR article: (emphasis is mine)

“…we’ve  found that corporate leaders dramatically overestimate the extent  to which their customers actually want to talk to them. In fact, on  average, companies tend to think their customers value live service more  than twice as much as they value self service. But our data show that  customers today are statistically indifferent about this — they value  self-service just as much as using the phone. And guess what?  By and  large, this indifference holds regardless of their age, demographic,  issue type, or urgency.”

It really just stands to reason, regardless of your industry, if  people go home at night to Amazon, Netflix and Online Banking, when they  come in to work in the morning, they bring those user expectations with  them.  Someone is buying all of those smartphones and ipads and they  aren’t just teenagers looking to post to Facebook!  I’ve written about this quite often in the past.

“This  attitude toward self-service has been a long time coming.  Two-thirds of the customers we surveyed told us that three to five years  ago, they primarily used the phone for service interactions. Today,  less than a third do, and the number is shrinking fast.” 

My 29 year old semi-luddite daughter recently shared her eureka  moment about why she is making fewer phone calls than she ever has.  It  has to do with the pressure of being engaged in a synchronous  conversation.  She would much prefer not having to confront another  human being in real time.  There is too much pressure to say the right  thing and ask the right question and react appropriately.  Asynchronous  media (texting, email, chats, websites) are much more to her liking  because she can take her time thinking about her responses.  I told her  all that was well and good for her business and friends, but that wasn’t  getting her off the hook from speaking with me on the phone 🙂

“…maybe  customers are shifting toward self service because they don’t want a relationship with companies.”

All of the input we get from our interactions with our client’s  customers is that they simply want to have the product they desire,  shipped to them on time and at the agreed upon price.  They would much  prefer not spending anytime on the phone with their suppliers, because  if they did, it usually wasn’t to learn about new products but to  resolve issues they have with existing orders…wrong product shipped,  delivery times too long, etc. etc. 

Which reminds me of growing up in NYC in the 60’s and 70’s.  My  parents often took me to visit their cousins, Fanny and George in  Brooklyn.  Fanny and George, and their two kids, did nothing but fight  with each other during our entire stay.  My mother said that it only  looked like they were fighting when in actuality they really loved each  other.  My take on that?  If arguing like that defines a “relationship”,  than I’d rather not have one.  Looks like my world view was prescient.

The most disturbing finding of the author’s research was this:

“We  found that a staggering 57% of inbound calls come from customers who  first attempted to resolve their issue on the company’s website. And  over 30% of callers are on the company’s website at the same time that they are talking to a rep on the phone. That’s a lot of frustrated  customers.”

The wrong conclusion to draw from this observation is that it’s  better not to put up a web channel until you can get it  perfect…because you never will.  Web channels are the best “checks”  you have in the “Plan-Do-Check-Act” cycle of continuous improvement.   Without a web channel, all those inbound phone calls are your “Checks”  and “sticky notes on your CSR’s cubicles” are the results.  Having a web  channel (or opening up your Kimono to your customers) will  force you to “Act” more appropriately…clean up your business processes  and make sure that SAP is configured appropriately and that your Master  Data is accurate. 

It’s a scary thing, but it’s the right thing  for every business to commit to.

In the end, it’s best to reserve conversations with your customers to  collaborating on new products and services and maybe even wishing them a  happy birthday.  Let your SAP integrated web channel do the heavy  lifting of transacting the day to day business with them.


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  • Sam,
    That’s a very interesting blog. I agree that customers prefer websites to phone calls to track their transactions (like checking the status of their shipment or an online invoice). And, they do prefer ‘asynchronous’ communication.
    However, I have observed that in case of SAP (and other such solutions), the prospective customers do prefer a short phone call. Yes, there are business collateral and case-studies posted on the vendor’s websites. But often the customers don’t have the time to go through the details. Also, they want you to hear them out, their specific problems, their unique requirements and give pointed answers tailored to their questions. The contents on websites are either “too generic” or “too detailed and time consuming” to digest. That’s where I think customers prefer a short call over websites.


    • Hi Ashutosh,

      Indeed in pre-sales mode, I believe a conversation is sometimes warranted. This is especially true the more complex the product or service offering becomes.  With that said, I really don’t think we should make excuses for poorly designed websites.

      Thanks for your insights.


  • I tend to agree but i also feel it has a lot do with culture, i am pretty much sure Indian customers will never cease calling people on the phone.we are people whose cultural edifice is built on constant verbal communication!
    • Great observation about culture and I’m sure that you are right about that.  That’s why the slices of the communication channel pie will be variable.  However, the point is the trend.  I really think expectations are growing for the web channel and declining for the phone channel.  I just received this input from a Purchasing Manager from Verizon:

      “I preferred to use vendor websites. It’s faster and easier than play phone tag with vendors. There are time you need an answer fast and not everyone answers there emails in a timely manner. It also save time for both the vendor and yourself.”

      Her point is about saving time.  I think that is a powerful motivator in our frenetic world!

      Thanks for you observations Nanada.