WalMart.com To Shutdown Its Online Call Center

: Consumers trying to make purchases won't be able to phone for help anymore. Is it to save money or because, as Wal-Mart says, the technology works so well that phone support is no longer needed? Gosh, that's a hard choice.

Pointing to improvements to its Web site, Walmart.com, Wal-Mart officials say that phone support is no longer needed and is shutting it down. Critics label the move as a reckless act of cost-cutting that will quickly haunt Wal-Mart.

The Wal-Mart action was first reported in The New York Times, which said the change will happen next week, although the regular 1-800-Walmart number will still work for in-store questions.

The Times quoted Wal-Mart spokeswoman Amy Colella as saying the customer service phone number was being removed "because 'a significant number of calls are related to order tracking,' and the improvements to the Web site will make the tracking easier."

Not sure what's more disconcerting. Is it that Wal-Mart believes it's customers will never need Web site help or that it thinks that it's Web systems are now so flawless that customer service backup is not necessary.

Daniel Obregon is a marketing communications manager for eStara, a vendor that sells click-to-call and click-to-chat services. Obregon questions the wisdom of the Wal-Mart move and contrasts it with how another retailer dealt with a similar challenge.

When Amazon.com decided that customers were frequently asking questions that the Web site could easily handle, "they didn't eliminate the phone service. They were just very smart about how they used it."

What Amazon did, however, was hide their phone number and make it only appear when a customer was several layers into a purchase.

Wal-Mart's fiscally-conservative culture is undermining the chain's online strategy, Obregon contends. Wal-Mart's "contact center is being viewed as more of a cost center than as an opportunity center. They were trying to deal with the issue of volume and their solution was to push everyone down a single (contact) path. But individual consumers do not always have the same needs. It's a leap of faith that one channel is appropriate for all consumers."

Maybe Wal-Mart should change its tagline from the new "Save Money. Live Better" to "Save Money. Hang Up."

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