Wal-Mart has announced a Customer Contact Reduction Program. They certainly deserve an award for honesty and transparency -- many organizations have launched programs with this intention, but I have never heard of one that was accurately labeled.
Most of WalMart.com's calls relate to order tracking, and they are investing heavily in an order tracking system. As a result, they won't need a phone number. That's the plan, according to Katie Hafner at the New York Times.
Is this on brand for Wal-Mart?
Most commentators seem to think this is a bad idea. My view is somewhat contrarian. The question we need to ask about any customer experience is whether a change is on-brand or off-brand.
Wal-Mart is all about convenience and low prices. So if they can pull this off, they will reduce costs to serve customers, and perhaps even improve the online experience. If you are shopping at Wal-Mart online, you're not looking for a high-touch experience. You're looking for plentiful, cheap and convenient access to stuff.
Operational challenge of withdrawing all phone support
The challenge Wal-Mart will have is that completely shutting off any door to a human helper might slop over somewhere else. Few processes are so goof-proof that they never have issues. Even at Six Sigma, you have 3.4 defects for every million opportunities. At Wal-Mart's scale, and if they're less than Six-Sigma reliable, there will be lots of customers who have problems that their web site can't solve.
If there is really great e-mail support, that might be sufficient. They might also have a "secret service" option. This is what I would call it when there is human support available, but it isn't publicized. It's only available after you are well into the service hierarchy. Amazon, for example, does have phone support available, but you have to dig for it.
We expect vastly different things from Wal-Mart and from Williams-Sonoma, for example, who's phone number is one click from their home page.
Good customer experience is not always high touch; it is always on-brand. And that's not the same thing.
Sam Walton's philosophy of business, as reported on WalMart.com:
"The secret of successful retailing is to give your customers what they want. And really, if you think about it from your point of view as a customer, you want everything: a wide assortment of good-quality merchandise; the lowest possible prices; guaranteed satisfaction with what you buy; friendly, knowledgeable service; convenient hours; free parking; a pleasant shopping experience."- Sam Walton (1918-1992)
Thank you to Dan Obregon at eStara for bringing this to my attention.
Katie Hafner, BITS Blog on NY Times: "Walmart.com to Customers: Stop Calling"
Image of the Emerald City from MGM Wizard of Oz from OutNow