Memo to IT: You do know that a mobile phone is still a phone, right?

While other retailers hide their phone number, Zappos encourages its shoppers to call. There are good reasons to remember that a mobile device is still primarily a phone.

Technologists have always been drawn to bright and shiny objects. That's why mobile development has focused on geolocation, streaming video, biometrics and impressive app gymnastics. But the core of the mobile phone—at it's heart, it is a telephone, capable of making voice calls—has generally been ignored. As Zappos has discovered, that can be very bad for business.

What the retailer figured out is that texts, emails and other customer communications are far less effective at closing sales than what Alexander Graham Bell thought up. This is one of those surprising conclusions that if you think about, shouldn't be surprising at all. Texting and email force the customer to type everything they are saying instead of just talking about it.

In texting, customer service reps invariably are trying to handle several customers at once—which explains those long awkward silences after you've asked a simple question. In a phone call, you usually have the full attention of the rep. It's also far easier to explain a problem when you can use vocal emphasis and inflection to try to make your meaning clear. It's also much more difficult for a rep on the phone to stick with a non-responsive stock answer, while on texting, it is far too easy.

A recent Forbes story took an eye-opening peek into Zappos customer contact stats.

"The volume of these customer inputs is heavily skewed toward telephone: 7,394 calls, answered in 25 seconds on average, as opposed to 1,656 chats answered in 31 seconds each, and 988 emails answered on average in 4 hours and 15 minutes," the story noted before quoting a Zappos official's wonderfully revealing thought: "That’s because other companies hide their phone number. We put ours front and center on the website."

That is absolutely true. I find myself searching for retail customer service numbers on Google far more than on the retail sites themselves, unless the site offers the number within about a minute of searching. Not only is it anti-customer-focused—which can be defined simply as "Try to treat customers the way they want to be treated"—but Zappos illustrates that it's against the retailer's own interests.

Sure, text and email are far more efficient for the retailer, but that's not the point. A well-designed website should answer most of a customer's questions and make the purchase as smooth as possible. But problems happen, and you want those problems to be resolved as quickly and effectively as possible, which generally means a phone call.

My experience is that texts and emails are fine when everything is running properly and the question is something such as, "Where is the button for tracking an order?" In short, it works decently when the question is anticipated and an appropriate answer has been written.

But when the system glitches, little other than a phone call helps. "I know I am now supposed to click the right button, but all the buttons are grayed out. How do I get around that?"

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh was quoted describing the difference in approach between Zappos and its parent company, Amazon: "I don't think the difference [between the appeal of Zappos and the Amazon brand] is in the UI [the website user interface]. It's in how we build a personal connection, primarily on the phone. We’re actually experimenting with ways to get more people to call because it’s such a valuable marketing and brand builder for us."

Absolutely. Done properly, the massively neglected phone call is the most effective problem-solver and deal-closer available. And with mobile, that call can happen anywhere, including when a shopper is in a store aisle and is frustrated trying to give you money. You really want to take that call, don't you?

Mobile—it's not just for texting anymore.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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