Companies that are difficult to contact

When it comes to getting in touch with some companies, it seems they're playing hide and seek with consumers.
 
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01 .Trying to get through

Are companies leaving you hanging on the line?

When it comes to contacting companies with a complaint, query or request for technical support, consumers can sometimes find themselves stuck in a rabbit warren of forms that go nowhere, unanswered phone calls and emails that disappear into the ether.

In this story, you'll find information on:

What CHOICE wants

All businesses, whether online or bricks and mortar, should make it easy for customers to get in touch. Offering just one form of communication is limiting and can even be discriminatory.

Providing only a phone number can be problematic for people who find it difficult to communicate over the telephone. And only offering online channels for communication can stop those without internet access from having their say.

Good customer service guidelines

  • Businesses should provide a phone number and email address for consumers to contact them. In addition, they should also provide one or more of the following: live chat, online contact form, postal address and/or social media site.
  • Contact information should be easy to locate.
  • Where communication isn’t immediate or very speedy, an automated reply should tell people that their query has been received, and how long it will take for them to receive a response.

What's the problem?

Businesses spend a lot of time and money trying to lure consumers. Whether it’s furniture, appliances, apps, music, electricity or a phone line, we’re constantly bombarded with offers, specials and sales. But CHOICE has found over the years that it's how companies deal with complaints or problems that is the real test of their worth.

Dr Nichola Robertson, senior lecturer in marketing at Deakin Graduate School of Business, says the impact of this sort of poor customer service can be significant. “When a consumer has a problem, they want to speak to someone to resolve that problem. If that contact isn’t available, customers can become dissatisfied. Some companies do customer service very well, but then there are those who are trying to hide customer support or have minimal support, offering only one channel, and invariably their customer will be dissatisfied.

“Increasingly customers have more and more power and expect multi-channel contact," she says. "Evidence shows not giving customers a choice in how they can contact you is likely make them unhappy.”

Poor form

Contact forms, in the absence of other options for making contact, can also be an annoyance for consumers. “Generally speaking, customers are weary of web forms because they feel they’re not going to be responded to,” says Robertson. “We’ve had people say they’d rather communicate with an interpersonal channel, especially if the customer doesn’t get an indication of receipt of web form or when they will get a response.” 

When CHOICE contacted Myer, David Jones, Freeview, McDonald’s, Coles, Woolworths and the Hilton Sydney via their web forms (some of these companies do also provide alternative contact details) with a simple question, results were mixed. 

 

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Neither department stores Myer and David Jones nor digital switchover facilitator Freeview acknowledged receipt of the submitted forms, or let us know when we should expect a reply. A Myer and David Jones representative did answer our question within 24 hours, however. Freeview’s website stated “A representative of Freeview will respond shortly.” More than a month later, we’re still waiting to hear from them.

The Hilton Sydney didn’t acknowledge receipt of our web form with an automatic email, but did respond to our query within an hour of its being submitted. Supermarkets Coles and Woolworths and fast-food chain McDonald’s also automatically acknowledged receipt of our form with an email. While Coles stated a reply would be sent “as soon as possible”, it took eight days to respond. Woolworths told us they try to answer queries within 24 hours, and took 27 hours to reply. And even though McDonald’s told us it would take a whopping five to seven working days to get back to us, they replied within 24 hours of our query. 

Crouching agents, hidden numbers

Given it’s so hard to find the contact details for some companies - and takes so long to get through while waiting on hold or for a reply to an email - it's hard not to conclude they are intentionally trying to prevent their customers from being able to contact them. 

When CHOICE asked consumers to dob in companies they’ve had problems getting in touch with, the response was resounding. Several members nominated Facebook. When CHOICE tried to find a way of getting in touch with the site, we couldn’t locate their contact details anywhere, and were only able to contact them via issue-specific forms.

Among the consumers who shared their Facebook experiences with us was Tony: “I resorted to writing to their registered address in Australia. They opened the letter and re-sealed it, and marked it return to sender. I eventually got through to them - registered mail to Sydney and to their American address.”

Also named and shamed for making their contact details difficult to locate, not responding to consumers’ queries or giving consumers the old run-around were:

“It’s extremely short-sighted,” says Robertson. “Any opportunity a customer has to get in contact with your company is a branding opportunity, not an expense to be minimised.

“If they can’t get in contact, they're likely to tell their friends and family about their negative experience. They may not come back to your organisation, so you’re losing repeat purchase behaviour. Or, they may take to social media, where the audience is a lot wider. In some industries they might go to the ombudsman. They’re not going to just go away.

“From a long-term perspective, why would you hide your details? You don’t want consumers to engage in detrimental behaviour."

I can teach you, but I have to charge

While all the above examples are aggravating to say the least, EA Games takes the cake - and a 2013 Shonky Award. If you’ve bought an EA product and require technical support that can’t be solved by troubleshooting, you can get in touch with EA Games’ Australian customer support. They offer just two options, snail mail or phone - somewhat surprising for a tech company that makes a motza on the internet. 

More surprising is the number you have to dial to get EA on the phone: a premium service 1902 number, which costs $2.48 per minute to call from a landline, and more from a mobile. When CHOICE rang EA, we waited five minutes and 30 seconds - costing us more than $14 - and our query was not resolved.

CHOICE believes consumers should be able to receive technical support for products they've purchased without having to pay a fee. Considering some of EA’s games are marketed to children and teens, there’s a very real possibility of bill shock resulting from attempts to contact the company without understanding the cost of a 1902 call.

Robertson agrees. “Customers should be able to freely get in contact with a business, even if self-service troubleshooting is a part of their offering. The total offering of EA games should include its customer support.

"At the very least, they should make it explicit to customers up-front, when they purchase their games, that customer support incurs fees.” 

 
 

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Laying down the law

In some circumstances, such as door-to-door sales or telemarketing purchases, companies are legally required to provide their contact details to consumers. Generally though, the Australian Consumer Law does not mandate that contact details be provided for consumer complaints.

However, under law, businesses must provide consumers with the ability to return faulty goods for repair, replacement or refund. And in the case of a recall, suppliers must provide details about what to do with recalled products and how to go about getting a refund. 

If you need to contact a company or business about an issue with a product or service you’ve purchased and you’re unable to, the department of consumer affairs or fair trading in your state or territory can help. And if the business hasn’t provided you with sufficient information to enable you to enforce your rights under the ACL, that’s a case for the ACCC.

Who owns that?

If you can’t find any contact details for an Australian online retailer, you can check the Whois Registry. It lists email addresses and names of the owners of Australian website addresses. This search may reveal a parent company, whose contact details you can Google, or you can attempt to get in contact using the supplied email address. There’s no guarantee you’ll get a reply, but it’s a start.

Live chat case study

Angela downloaded a Microsoft Office trial, but decided to cancel her subscription before the trial finished and monthly subscription fees kicked in. When she tried to do so, she found she wasn’t able to log in to her account in order to cancel her membership. 

Microsoft’s options for contacting a customer service agent in Australia include a phone number and a live chat, and Angela chose the latter option. First, the customer service agent told Angela her account didn’t exist, and that she’d have to escalate the issue via a call centre – in the UK, which she claimed was the nearest centre to Angela.

“When I asked the agent if she knew where Australia was, she told me she needed some time to ‘research the issue’,” says Angela. “I went round and round and they couldn’t or wouldn’t help me.”

Luckily, Angela’s persistence paid off, and eventually the problem was fixed. “But I wasted a lot of time trying to get it resolved.”

Hard to contact: a matter of CHOICE

In the course of CHOICE’s testing and investigation work, our journalists and researchers often need to get in touch with companies. Some are forthcoming with information and happy to help us out, even in cases where they may not be happy with the results of our investigations. Others, however, take a less conciliatory approach.

Some companies may not speak with us because we've been critical of them in the past - certainly, talking to the major supermarkets has become increasingly problematic since CHOICE’s major investigations into the big two. Others don’t have the time, or the inclination, to communicate.

Chris Shaday, leader of CHOICE’s content research team, says there are a number of reasons companies provide for their reticence. “Sometimes they disagree with previous test results, they do not know who CHOICE is, do not see CHOICE as important for their business, or they are genuinely busy.”

Shaday says some companies, such as Sunbeam, are very cooperative, while others, such as DeLonghi, are less so. “DeLonghi stopped talking to us when they disagreed with some test results on espresso machines, but the silence continued even after they performed well in further testing. They’ve taken the view that dealing with CHOICE takes too much effort."

Your say - Choice voice

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