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The problem with telephones is the number!


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Having worked for some time in network infrastructure technologies, I’ve become highly attuned to the issues of addressing and routing.

The address, a necessary evil

An address is a unique identifier that tells routing protocols where to send a message. The most common example is your postal mail address, which enables the post office to sort mail and get it to your mailbox.

An address requires two properties:

– It has to be unique (preferably!)

– The sender – the person sending you a message (in this case, a piece of mail) – needs to know it.

We’ve all wanted to send postcards to friends while on vacation and not had their addresses memorized. No way to get them their postcards.

And this is the critical point: making sure others know your address so they can send you messages.

Memorized telephone numbers: not a given in the 21st century.

This particular kind of address is so integral to our existence that we don’t even recognize how complex it is, or that it’s becoming obsolete: the telephone number. A series of 10 or so numbers, depending on the country.

We actually expect humans to remember strings of numbers in order to call people! How can we not see the absurdity of a mechanism that was devised during the era of switchboards?

Of course, telephone directories appeared around this same time (white and yellow pages), and later personal address books (contact databases).  If we bother to enter the contact info of our main contacts into our smartphones, we can then forget their numbers. The smartphone remembers them for us.

In order to function, we are constantly maintaining this database by entering new numbers and updating old ones.

Do people enter the number of a company’s customer service department into their phones? No. Never. Because it’s too much work. We don’t have the contact info for companies in our phones.

What’s the customer service number?

What happens when I want to contact customer service at my ISP, for example? I have to look up the number, which adds an additional dose of frustration to whatever problem I’m already calling them about. Where do I find the customer service number? Probably online, on their website, on the “Contact” page.

Companies increasingly hide this number behind a form or FAQ in order to limit the number of inbound calls to their call centers.

This process hardly offers an optimized customer experience, and it can become catastrophic if I have to contact customer service from my smartphone when away from my computer.

First I have to find the tiny number on the tiny website on my tiny screen, then call (if I’m lucky, I can just tap the number to dial, but otherwise I have to remember it or copy and paste it into my phone app). Essentially, I have to go online to call a call center, which is a serious problem.

Social media to the rescue of customer service?

Picture me at the airport: my plane is late, and I’m going to miss my connection. I’d like to know how the airline is going to handle the night I’m going to have to spend here. The agents are overwhelmed, so I decide to contact customer service.

I don’t feel like searching for a phone number, so I open Twitter on my smartphone.

I quickly find the airline’s Twitter handle and send a tweet, to which I expect a response. Since Twitter is a real-time communications medium, I get an answer right away.

Much better. I had a fairly smooth customer experience and didn’t need a phone number!

There are other reasons to use social media to contact customer service, but the ease-of-use factor should not be dismissed.  The Net Easy Score is higher than for other channels.

The mobile app: the quickest route to customer service

But there is an even better option than social media… One that doesn’t require memorization, a search engine or a directory: a company’s own mobile app.

A number of companies have integrated Messaging into their apps. This allows them to offer customers an instant messaging system within the company’s app.

Once I’ve downloaded the app onto my smartphone, all I have to do is tap it and I’m in direct contact with customer service. No more phone numbers or queues. Just a simple, efficient way to get satisfaction.

Originally published Jun 04, 2015, updated May 22, 2024

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