Hangs Up on Customers

Opinion: officials make it clear: They're not shutting down the online support service. They're just hiding it.

In an effort to force online shoppers to use their online tools—and only their online tools— has decided to continue its online telephone help desk, but—I swear Im not making this up—not tell anyone the phone number.

In the most literal example of the "dont call us, well call you" attitude Ive seen in quite some time, Walmart.coms customer service people—at their discretion—may call some customers who are having difficulties, but they wont disclose their phone number, which is a fairly effective way to discourage callers.

When pressed if there was any way customers could still call the online help desk, spokesperson Amy Colella said that the old phone numbers still work, if you happen to have written them down.

There was ambiguity about whether 1-800-walmart—the number intended to support the brick-and-mortars—would help online customers, but there appears to be a prompt for them. (No one answered, though, when I tried.)

To clarify, isnt pulling the plug on its phone customer service in two ways. If you happen to remember or can find their number, theyll still answer, Colella said. The second way is that customer service reps who are reviewing orders may choose to call customers. How often? "Well escalate calls [to phone] as needed and as necessary," Colella said. "We feel this is a good thing for our customers."

When asked why its a good thing, she talked about the improved online tools. When asked how customers are likely to react to playing this strange "call me if you can" game with them, she again talked about the new and improved online tools. has traditionally had a policy of responding to e-mails within 24 hours, she said. But how can a 24-hour promised response time cut it on the Web, when rivals are quite willing to answer questions right here and now?

If a customer is trying to place items in a virtual shopping cart and the item wont stay in the cart, will that customer want to wait 24 hours for an answer? What if an item says "10 in stock" on one screen and "out of stock" on another? How can the customer figure it out? officials have stressed that they have a very effective shipping status app on their site, which they do. But what if the data isnt correct? I had a situation a few months ago where the screen said an item had been delivered to my home and I knew for a fact that it hadnt been. Only a phone call can resolve something like that. (Turned out FedEx delivered it to a neighbor two blocks away.)

That all said, Wal-Marts goal—to get customers to use the online tools and only to call with questions that cant be handled online—is a worthy one. But instead of hiding the customer service phone number, perhaps it would be more effective to offer consumers tiny discounts whenever they place an order entirely using online tools.

If the goal is to push more activity online, that seems like a more effective approach.

The problem is that is starting to drink the Wal-Mart Kool-Aid. Unlike the physical stores, doesnt have any great hook. You upset customers, theyre a mere click away from some other national retailer that will take their calls.

Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesnt plan to stop any time soon. He can be reached at

To read earlier retail technology opinion columns from Evan Schuman, please click here.


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