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Hold the Phones: Chat as an Alternative to 1-800 Helplines?

Posted by Jessica Chavez on Mon, Sep 26, 2011
1-800 beauty hotlines

I recently read Mike Albo’s piece in W Magazine about beauty hotlines where operators are standing by to answer questions and deal with “emergencies,” like accidentally using an antiperspirant cream as a hand lotion.  This got me wondering , in a 24/7 online world filled with IMs and chats, are most beauty companies still relying only on 1-800 numbers to answer their customers’ questions and concerns?Curious as to whether beauty companies offered a customer service chat option, I did an impromptu investigation of 10 product websites based on products I have in my bathroom.  Most products are from well-known, deep-pocket companies (e.g. Neutrogena and L'Oreal).  A few were organic-type products produced by smaller companies (like Earth Science Naturals). I was surprised to find none of the product websites I visited offered live chat with a representative.  Not one.  If chat was available, I couldn’t find it anywhere on the sites I looked at, and I searched.  Usually, all I could find were the 1-800 hotlines from the back of the product itself. 

As a marketer I acknowledge there are some definite pluses to beauty hotlines, they are great for building customer relationships. As a market researcher I see other benefits too: the calls are recorded, and companies get the pulse of the customer, potentially driving further research on hot topics.  It's essentially free qualitative research that comes to them.  But the world has changed from a decade ago, customers expect answers now and limiting feedback to phone calls could keep companies from getting the most accurate information. Also, there are a couple of problems with limiting interactions to 1-800 numbers.

  • First, these hotlines are usually available during office hours: Monday to Friday 9-5. These are the prime hours counted against cell phone minutes (800 numbers still count as minutes used).  Plus they’re closed nights and weekends, the time that most cell plans offer free calling.  With fewer and fewer people owning landlines; companies must consider that their toll free numbers aren’t free for most.  And hey, people work too!

  • Second, if you can’t, or don’t want to call during hotline hours, there’s usually an email option. The rise of IM can make even email feel like a pain in the neck. And sometimes an email answer generates more questions.  Sometimes you need a little back-and-forth to get to the root of your question.  People want reassurance: a real live person to answer questions and hash it out with you until you get the information you need. 

There’s a huge opportunity here folks. I’m talking to you, Bath and Beauty Products Industry.  With the implementation of website chat functionality, just think how much easier data collection could be.  Think how you could be getting more contact with a wider variety of people with a wider variety of questions. Think of the potential increase in customer satisfaction by offering another option for contact, and the chance to drive future strategy.  Think of the “Cool Technology” factor and who might be inclined to use it. 

As both a researcher and a consumer of beauty products, this seems like a no-brainer.  What do you think?

Posted by Jessica McClelland.  Jessica is a senior associate researcher at CMB who does her best thinking and magazine reading while exercising.

 

Topics: data collection, technology solutions, customer experience and loyalty, retail research