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The New York Times reports that Wal-Mart has launched a “Customer Contact Reduction” program for its online business and will no longer will list a toll-free customer service phone number on the company’s website, but rather will make shoppers “rely solely on the Wal-Mart Web site as their guide to the solution for whatever problem they might have, whether it is a question about a credit card charge or the status of an online order.”

The change will not affect the brick-and-mortar stores’ customer service number, which is still 1-800-Walmart.

KC's View:
I’m of two minds on this one.

My first reaction is negative, because it seems that many of Wal-Mart’s recent problems have stemmed from losing touch with its core customer base. If it were me, I’d be trying to figure out ways to make it easier to interact with them, not harder. Now, Wal-Mart says that its improved web site operations actually makes it easier for customers to get information, but they’re playing the expectations and perception game here, and may be losing.

Now, I do have to say that there are other ways to skin this cat. I’m opening a can of worms here, I know, but Amazon’s customer service has always been terrific in my experience, and it is almost impossible to find its phone number – though it does have a terrific service which allows the shopper to ask for a call-back from the company. I’ve used it from time to time, and it works just fine. For those of us who use the web to shop, communicating via the Internet is preferred anyway…so maybe it doesn’t really matter.

In the end, though, I think I’m sticking with my initial reaction. The last thing Wal-Mart needs right now is a headline about losing touch with customers, and that’s exactly what it is getting.

There’s a lesson here for every company. To be a resource for your shoppers, you have to be more available, more accessible, more accountable. Which requires a greater commitment and investment. But the alternative is creeping irrelevance…and that never leads in a good direction.