Firms play hide-and-seek with their phone numbers

Times Staff Writer

Let's play a game: Find the customer support telephone number.

There was a time when businesses actually welcomed phone calls from customers. Now, many go to extraordinary lengths to avoid calls, preferring that orders and support issues be handled online.

The reason, of course, is money -- a person picking up the phone will want to get paid.

In fact, some companies have cut out telephone customer support altogether.

Shopping maven Lauren Freedman, who is president of the market research firm E-tailing Group, thinks that's just wrong.

"You should not have to kill yourself to find the number," Freedman said. "It should be right there on the home page.

"It's an opportunity for a company to say, 'We believe in service.' "

You might as well believe in Tinkerbell.

In a sampling of eight prominent sites, only one had a customer service phone number on its home page.

Two of them had no phone numbers listed, and others charged for the privilege of speaking to a real human. Inc.

This landmark e-commerce company doesn't want you to call, but it doesn't mind calling you.

You can get to a customer service phone number, if you navigate carefully, in four clicks. But that number is accompanied by a message that it's "faster, easier" to opt for its Call Me service.

To use it, you fill in your phone number and click on a button to initiate a call back. In a test, the Call Me service phoned back in less than 5 seconds, whereupon I was put on hold -- complete with recorded music and a "Your call is very important to us" announcement -- for 1 minute and 17 seconds. Then a person got on the line.

Not bad in this era of holds that can go on for 30 minutes. No music is that good.

Apple Inc.

This was the site that featured a toll-free number, used for ordering products, right on the home page. The number was fairly low on the page and in small type, but at least it was there.

Finding the technical support number was another matter. It took four clicks to get to a support page that listed it, and use of the number came with conditions.

For example, iPod owners could get help on that line for free, but just for "one support incident" within 90 days of purchase. After that, it costs.

EBay Inc.

EBay views itself as the people's marketplace -- it just doesn't want the people to call. The site has no customer service number.

It does have a texting service, called Live Help, that can be used to pose online questions. I clicked on it and quickly received a text message from "Peter M." in a window on the computer screen.

I asked a question about selling fees, and Peter, who was exceedingly polite, answered them after a few delays (perhaps he was handling several text questions simultaneously).

All of my questions were patiently handled over a 12-minute period. At the end, Peter wrote, "Take care and God bless."

That seemed a bit unusual, considering that we had not established any common ground in the spiritual realm. Then again, divine intervention would be welcome in some EBay transactions.

Equifax Inc.

In case of identity theft or a possible credit report error, you might be frantic to call this giant credit reporting bureau.

The site makes a call seem possible. It says you can use a link to "speak live with an Equifax Customer Care representative."

But click on it and you are asked to log in as an Equifax member.

And how do you become a member? By purchasing "any of our products."

So if you want to call, you gotta pay.

JetBlue Airways Corp.

Click on "Contact Us" (in small type at the bottom of the home screen) and you go right to a page that lists a phone number.

But there's an extra $10 fee for using it to make a reservation.

Microsoft Corp.

My aim in this test was to make a service call about Windows Vista, the latest version of the giant software company's operating system.

This is not an obscure topic. There have been bountiful reports of consumer problems with Vista. But clicking through the customer help system took me through seven pages before I reached one that spelled out the limitations.

If Vista was pre-installed on a purchased computer, it said, the computer company had to be contacted for help. If the consumer installed Vista, Microsoft would accept the call for free within 90 days of the program being activated.

After that, there's a fee.

Target Corp.

This retailer, best known for its brick-and-mortar department stores, puts only one degree of clicking between customers and phone help. There's a diminutive Contact Us link at the bottom of the home page. Click on it and you reach numbers that can be used to place orders and track packages for free.

Yahoo Inc.

Most of this company's services are available at no cost, but there's no phone help.

For example, if you have a problem with the popular Yahoo mail service, you can post a question to a public forum and depend on the kindness of strangers.

The company states that it "does not evaluate or guarantee the accuracy" of the forum's answers.

As for paid services, such as a subscription to the Yahoo Personals dating service, the site will allow you to e-mail questions directly to the company. But still, no customer support number.

Think of it as akin to the phone call that doesn't come after a first date.

The lesson in all of this is if you want to make a phone call that's truly appreciated, call Mom. She won't tell you where your package is, but she probably won't charge you.


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