Go to any small or medium sized ecommerce business’ website, and you will most likely see the company’s phone number posted prominently on the front page or page header. Most ecommerce website “best practices” articles and resources will recommend that you show your phone number as conspicuously as possible, so that customers can find you right away. Some will argue that simply having the phone number makes customers more comfortable, thereby increasing conversion rates.
But what if you don’t want to provide phone support? Is that even an option for an ecommerce site? When I first started my ecommerce site, I also thought having phone support available for my customers was an obvious requirement. After all, if a company you’ve never heard of doesn’t have humans available to help with purchases, are they a reputable company?
When I first launched my ecommerce website, I was desperate for sales. I made sure any customer could reach me in any way, prominently showing my phone number across multiple locations on my website. My plan worked, and as my paid advertising campaigns began to produce some web traffic, customers started calling in. At first, it was just a trickle – perhaps one phone call every other day. I genuinely enjoyed speaking with real potential customers and better understanding their needs and how my products might fit into their solution.
Oftentimes, after a 20-30 minute chat, a customer would thank me for my expertise, and tell me they were ready and happy to order from me. Awesome! Although I had the option to take the customer’s credit card information over the phone, I would usually be working at Starbucks, and didn’t feel comfortable asking for such sensitive information in a public place. Instead, I would ask them to complete their order online, and that I would be more than happy to assist them if there were any issues completing their purchase.
Typically, the customer would indeed follow through, and a few minutes later I would receive a notification on my Shopify app saying that I’ve received a new order for…$50. Or, if a got lucky, perhaps an order for $100.
Sounds great, right? Well, yes, but I quickly found out this would be an unsustainable business model for me. Here’s why…
Phone calls are a time-consuming activity
In the early days of running my business, I genuinely did not mind spending this time chatting with customers and helping them with their order. Most customers just assumed I was a sales representative and not the owner of the company, and were extremely grateful and impressed at how knowledgeable and familiar I was with the products. On the surface, everything seemed great – after all, I had happy customers who even followed up with glowing product reviews saying how impressed they were with the customer support.
As my website grew, however, so did the phone call volume. By the middle of the first year, I would receive 2-3 phone calls a day. The majority of the customers called in with specific questions and were looking for quick answers that they were able to get. Some customers, however, would call and chat for more than an hour with me to discuss their situation with me in a very indirect and roundabout matter.
I felt quite torn, as I really wanted to help answer these customers’ questions, but I also had more and more things to tend to for my business. It also did not help that I had no way to anticipate when they would call. These customers were genuinely unsure about which products of mine to purchase, and their communication styles simply did not align with efficiency.
I don’t consider my EQ to be particularly high, and I never quite figured out how to cut these customers off in their long-winded chats without being completely rude, so I simply endured through many of these phone calls while anxiously hoping the phone call would end.
In hind sight, I suspect that some customers call in and spent a long time on the phone with me because they were lonely or just extreme extroverts that enjoy chatting on the phone. As a business owner, however, I knew that this was not the best way to spend my precious time, and that something had to change.
When things started to really grow towards the end of my first year, the phone call volume just continued to grow, to the point where I would be fielding one phone call every hour or so. I also began to receive phone calls from customers who had already purchased. They would call to ask why they didn’t receive their order, or they wanted to process returns. Of course, other parts of my business also grew in volume and complexity, so that took away my time as well.
Attempting to keep up with phone call volume
I realized at this point, to continue growing my business, I would either need to hire a customer support agent, or consider taking my phone support offline. The prospect of hiring an employee, training them, managing them, renting out an office and making sure they were providing high quality phone support was simply too much, and I decided against this very quickly.
I then thought about making it harder for customers to reach me via phone. After all, this is the approach Amazon uses, and they must know what they are doing, right? So I set about making my phone number less prominently displayed, and only had it shown towards the bottom of the “Contact” page.
Sure enough, my call volume went down a bit. But still, I kept receiving phone calls, and some customers would still call in just to chat. (I suspect there is a strong correlation between eagerness to chat and persistence in searching for the phone number).
I estimate that the percentage of customers who called in was reduced in half, but as my traffic grew, the absolute number of customers calling in just simply made up for the reduction. I had failed to understand that as a single-person ecommerce business, phone support was simply not practical due to the fact that it was not scalable. In other words, as the only employee, there was no way I could handle more than one 30 minute phone call in a 30 minute period.
I thought to myself, does this mean I need to completely remove phone support? The way I ultimately saw it, was that for every hour I spent on the phone, I could perhaps close $100 worth of sales. With a 50% profit margin, that would be the equivalent of a $50 per hour profit / salary. That’s pretty good for a salary, but as a business owner, my job is to grow the business, and not to collect a salary. By trading my time to provide phone support, I would be under-valuing the true value of my time as a business owner.
That’s because the fundamental difference between providing phone support and a business-building activity is that phone support provides only a one-time benefit. Even if I were to provide the best customer support ever, I am only really impacting that one customer, receiving the profit from the sale, and perhaps at best deriving some nebulous positive word of mouth marketing.
While it may seem mundane, writing a blog post is actually a business-building activity that potentially has a much stronger impact. If instead of talking to a customer on the phone, I wrote a blog post instead, this article could be read by dozens of readers every day, in perpetuity, without me doing any additional work. Simply put, there were so many more areas that I could put in an hour’s work to build my business, which would result in more than $50 of profit from closing a sale with a customer on the phone.
Benefits of providing email support instead of phone support
As of today, I have completely removed the customer support phone number from my entire website, and haven’t regretted the decision since. I’m sure I’m giving up some sales, but my sales are continuing to grow, so I know that phone support is not a necessity. Until I decide to hire people and open up a whole customer service department, I do not plan on opening up my phone support line again.
I do continue to offer email support, which I have found to be multiple times more efficient than phone support. I think there are several factors here.
First, people don’t like writing as much, so this immediately eliminates the less serious buyers who may have called just to chat, but can’t be bothered to write an email.
Second, by making customers write in, as opposed to calling, customers are forced to be more efficient in their inquiry. It’s a lot easier to be a chatterbox on the phone than a rambler via email. (But don’t get me wrong, sometimes customers write in with 1000 word essays to which I can only respond, “sorry, we don’t have the product you are looking for”).
Third, for many questions, I am able to re-use the same answer via canned responses. At the click of a button, I’m able to craft a helpful response to each customer inquiry.
And finally, email allows you to respond at your convenience, which means much fewer interruptions and better efficiency when responding to customers.
Some customers will still demand that you offer phone support
I do receive the occasional irritated customer email, most of which are variants of “I refuse to do businesses that don’t let me speak to a human before purchasing,” to which I simply respond via a canned response apologizing that we just aren’t able to provide dedicated phone support for our customers.
Sometimes, customers will give in and accept email as our means of communicating. Other times, customers will stick to their guns and move on to another company.
Are these missed opportunities? Absolutely. The conventional wisdom states that the customer is always right. While that’s maybe a decent philosophy for customer satisfaction, you need to draw the line somewhere as a business owner. And for me, I’ve found that offering phone support crosses that line.
By spending my precious time talking on the phone with customers, I am foregoing even greater opportunities that would generate higher growth for the business and that by speaking to customers on the phone you would be doing a disservice to the business.
It takes discipline to remind yourself of the counter-intuitive fact that it would be irresponsible for the business if you were to pick up the phone to make a sale, because phone calls with customers is such an ingrained, cultural norm that has been around since telephones were invented. But as a small business owner, you care more about efficiency and high growth, so you have to do things that are outside the norm.
Something that has helped me is to zoom out and reevaluate my target market. My target market is consumers who want product X, of course, but more precisely, it is consumers who want product X and do not require phone support. Simply put, customers who need phone support are not my target audience and I should invest my time and energy on my true target market, which is customers who can handle purchasing my product without a phone call consultation.
Exceptions to the no-phone support rule
Despite all of this, there are situations where I still use the phone, but these are exceptions rather than the rule. If there is a uniquely frustrating or urgent issue with a customer order, I will get on the phone to help get it resolved and/or apologize. From both my and the customer’s perspective, having a real human to talk to over the phone and help resolve an issue goes a long way. If a customer writes in and asks if there is a phone consultation option, I consider the request on a case-by-case basis. I am quite likely to get on the phone if a business customer reaches out, simply because their orders tend to be much larger, and the conversations much more efficient.
One important thing to note is that I removed the phone number from my website after I had an established close to 100 five-star reviews. Had I not accumulated those reviews first, removing phone support may have had a detrimental effect on my conversion rates due to customers having less confidence in my company. In fact, having the phone support and excellent customer service in the beginning may have been the pivotal factor in accumulating the positive reviews in the first place.
What’s my recommendation to someone just starting their own ecommerce store? Every situation is different, but a universal reality is that phone support is not scalable until you hire and manage an entire customer support team. If you provide the phone support yourself when you are also the business owner, you must remember that the opportunity cost of providing this phone support is significant.
There’s also nothing wrong with starting off with phone support like I did, and phasing it out as your business grows and your time becomes more limited. To minimize any negative impacts, I would recommend doing so after establishing a certain level of social proof through product reviews, and also making it relatively easy for your customers to reach you via email.
As time goes on, the importance of phone support will likely diminish. Younger generations are accustomed to communicating via email, chat and other digital methods, and some even prefer not to talk on the phone. From a customer experience perspective, I agree that the best practice is to provide whatever communication means they prefer most. As a business owner, however, be aware that your time is precious, and you can’t please everyone.