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The death of the customer service hotline

Need to call Facebook? Frontier? Good luck.

A bunch of phones with cords.
Nobody wants to call customer service — but it’s a real bummer when you need to and can’t.
J Studios/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

There’s been a breach of the Jonny Boston’s International Facebook page. Jonathan Kiper, the New Hampshire restaurant’s owner, is no longer able to access his personal Facebook account or, in turn, the page for his business, where he once kept customers updated about specials and deals. He’s tried to get back in, going through the online process to report his account as compromised multiple times and sending in a picture of his driver’s license to prove he’s, well, himself. But thus far, his efforts have been to no avail. He always gets tripped up at the last verification step — the one where Facebook sends a test code — because it appears the hacker has changed the account’s phone number.

It’s actually two phone numbers that are at the heart of Kiper’s problem: the hacker’s and Facebook’s, or rather, Facebook’s lack thereof. There’s no working customer service line that Kiper can find to call and explain what’s going on, so he’s out of luck. “There is a business number for Facebook you can call, but it just tells you they have no customer service and to use the website,” he says. Not exactly, you know, helpful when the website option doesn’t work.

Facebook is not an outlier here. Plenty of companies make it impossible or at the very least very difficult for consumers to call. Frontier Airlines announced in November it was axing phone-based customer service. You can get through to Amazon if you absolutely have to, but you’ve got to go through multiple steps to find a little button to get them to call you. In the age of the internet, and with companies constantly looking to cut costs, businesses big and small are cutting off the option for consumers to get on the phone and talk to an actual human being to resolve their problems. It’s not great for anyone involved.

“When there’s no option to pick up the phone, at some point it obviously creates all kinds of havoc in customers’ lives,” said Ryan Buell, a Harvard Business School professor who specializes in customer service interactions. “It can lead customers to behave in inefficient and counterproductive ways.”

It can lead companies to act in weird ways, too. When I was reporting for this story, three of the companies I contacted to ask about the specific experiences of individual customers responded asking for those customers’ information so they could try to get their problems fixed. Having a journalist as a go-between to unlock your Facebook account is not exactly a replicable tactic.

Having someone to pick up the phone costs money that some companies would rather not spend

The answer to why companies make it hard or impossible for people to call them is simple: It saves them money. It’s more expensive to hire a person in a call center — assuming they can find people who want to work there — than it is to engineer some chatbot that offers up canned answers on a website. The result is sort of a sliding scale of cost-saving terribleness.

“There’s a straight-up clear hierarchy,” Buell said. “The cost to talk to a live person face-to-face is always going to be greater than the cost to talk to a live person on the phone, which is going to be greater than the cost to talk to a live person over chat, which is going to be greater than the cost to talk to some kind of automated solution. In the middle there is also email, and chat is more expensive than email, which is more expensive than non-human.”

Part of this is a question of strategy. If you’re Amazon and your business plan is about keeping costs really low, you don’t want to offer widely advertised and extensive personalized customer service because managing a call center is costly. But it’s also part of a gradual technological and cost-saving evolution in customer service trends, explained Kejia Hu, an assistant professor of operations management at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management.

“Initially, all companies had phone call services, and then some firms started saying, ‘Sorry, we are only going to be reachable on certain days of certain hours,’” Hu said. Then maybe if you called off hours, you got connected with someone offshore, and eventually, you got connected with someone offshore off the bat. “It’s not for service quality, it’s for cost control,” she said. Then customer service moved to live chat options, often with a reply from a template, because automation also saves money, and then to robots and AI. The pandemic made everything worse, because many companies that did have in-person call centers shut them down altogether. It’s increasingly difficult for companies to get call center employees in the door and to get them to stick around.

Even if companies do have options to call, they’re often ineffective and have a ton of automated options before you get to a real person, if you ever do. “You have to go through all the menus, you say, ‘I want to talk with a person,’ you have to wait for an hour,” Hu said. “Even though they have the call option, it’s almost like no call at all.”

Having no call options is bad for consumers — and for companies

In a perfect world, all businesses would run seamlessly and no customer would ever need assistance. Unfortunately, the world is not perfect. Hiccups are inevitable, and they can often escalate from “huh, this seems like an inconvenience” to “wait, this is getting out of hand” to “holy hell, this entire situation is a nightmare.”

I talked to many people for this story who found themselves somewhere between “huh” and “wait” in a recent customer service experience with no call option. Kelley Diveto, from Florida, got a wine fridge as a Christmas gift in December 2021, and in the spring of 2022, it malfunctioned. She’s sent repeated emails to the manufacturer, a company called Bodega, with no response, even though the website claims all emails are answered in 24 hours. She received a handful of responses from its Facebook page before asking for a phone number, at which point she was left on read. “They just ignored me,” she says. She’s given up hopes of getting the fridge fixed. “Life goes on.”

One person I heard from signed up for a year-long Tidal music streaming subscription, couldn’t find a number to call, and was finally able to get a refund only after reaching out to the Better Business Bureau and filing a complaint. Another person can’t find a phone number for Uber to change her phone number from a UK one to a US one, so she can’t figure out how to use the app stateside. Another has been trying unsuccessfully to cancel a magazine subscription for a year and can’t get through on the phone, email, or Twitter. They were recently in New York City, where the magazine is based, and contemplated going to the company’s headquarters but “figured they’d never let me up to talk to someone.”

Bodega did not respond to a request for comment. Tidal and Uber reached out asking for the customers’ information so they could try to address what happened, and Uber said answers to common questions and 24/7 support were available through its app, though there’s no number. Facebook asked for the customer’s information, too. I’ve now done multiple rounds of back-and-forth with them trying to get Jonny Boston back in.

These types of experiences, where there’s no one on the other end of the line, can be harrowing for customers, especially in situations where they’re anxious, explained Michelle Shell, visiting assistant professor of operations and technology management at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. Research she and Buell have worked on shows that it’s “critically important” for consumers to feel as though they have permission to reach out to customer service in moments of distress.

“Eliminating human contact when people are feeling anxious causes them to be dissatisfied with their own decision-making, even if they’re making good decisions,” Shell said. People really do want to talk to a human being when they’re on edge, or at least have the option to — Shell found that even having a little button to talk to a real agent in a chatbot puts people at ease. “Reintroducing notions of human contact by giving them these options to connect with the company, even if they don’t actually use it, can restore trust.”

In taking away customers’ ability to reach out to an actual person, companies are largely seeing dollar signs. Cutting a call center obviously helps the bottom line. But they may be missing other, less obvious costs as well.

Talking to customers about their products and services may lead businesses to discover deficiencies they might not otherwise notice. This allows them to improve their offerings so that, in the long run, they build something better — and ultimately field fewer complaints.

Not giving customers an option to speak to a person directly can also erode trust and lead those customers to go elsewhere, if they can. It’s just something some companies might not see from looking at numbers. “When you’re doing that cost-benefit analysis, the savings on the benefits side look really attractive,” Shell said. “What is the cost of customer trust? How do we quantify it relative to the hard dollars that we know we’re saving by shifting to chatbots?”

Shell, who, again, studies this for a living, recently found herself on the “holy hell” end of the customer service frustration experience. She couldn’t get the electricity turned on in her new house because her credit was frozen, and the credit bureau she needed to reach out to to have it unfrozen had shuttered its call center. She had to send copies of her driver’s license and Social Security card to a random post office box in Texas. She ultimately waited months for her credit to be unfrozen and her lights to be turned on.

Bad customer service makes everybody a little evil

Let’s be honest here: Most of us are not exactly on our best behavior in customer service interactions, and American consumers overall do not have a reputation for being awesome. Part of the reason we’re like this is that companies have sort of trained us to be this way. Consumers have learned that being a little extra is often the way to get their way. (This does not give anyone an excuse to have a giant meltdown at a service worker.)

“When the experience that we have becomes frustrating, annoying, angering, and it undermines our trust in the organization, it can actually lead us, as customers, to behave in some pretty counterproductive ways from the perspective of the company, where we’re just out for blood. We want our problem solved, but we don’t care what it’s going to take to get us there,” Buell said.

If there is a call option, customers almost immediately ask for a supervisor because they’ve come to believe that’s the way to get their problems solved. They start yelling right off the bat, making life for the worker on the other end of the line — who’s not at fault at all — awful and making it harder to keep and recruit workers going forward.

Emails and chat communications get spicy quickly, and customers issue threats in an attempt to move their issue along. They try to take control by complaining on social media, hoping — often correctly — that an angry tweet will get them some attention.

Companies don’t exactly love the social media complaining, but it’s also less expensive for them to deal with than, again, operating a call center. “It’s almost like a probabilistic game,” Hu said. Say there’s a flight delay and an airline gives out vouchers, but only to the people who complain online — it’s a way to compensate the loudest customers, but not everyone. She said she’s heard anecdotally from social media people that companies sometimes look at how many followers a person has to see how they’ll respond. “If you have a lot of followers, you get better treatment,” she said.

Kiper, the New Hampshire restaurant owner, isn’t sure if his Facebook issue is losing him a lot in sales, though Facebook has definitely brought him business over the years, and he’s paid to advertise there in the past. Jonny Boston’s page now sits idle, with a note on the top posted by an ex-girlfriend, still an administrator, saying they’ve lost access to the page because of a “dumb hacker” and encouraging customers to look elsewhere for updates.

Kiper is sort of resigned to his fate here, even as he continues his search for a phone number to call. He just finds the situation a little baffling. “I just don’t know how you could guarantee that this couldn’t happen,” he says. “It’s got to be tons of people that this has happened to.” At least the restaurant’s phone number, proudly displayed on the page, still works.

We live in a world that’s constantly trying to sucker us and trick us, where we’re always surrounded by scams big and small. It can feel impossible to navigate. Every two weeks, join Emily Stewart to look at all the little ways our economic systems control and manipulate the average person. Welcome to The Big Squeeze.

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