Netflix CEO Illustrates Corporate Website Problem

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I was watching 60 Minutes tonight and their story on Reed Hastings, CEO of online DVD rental company Netflix, and there was an interesting moment that identifies a real problem with corporate websites – finding contact information.

As someone who has co-owned a web development company since 2001, I have seen the internet change dramatically in a short period of time. One thing that has not changed, however, is the primary reason for the existence of the internet: dissemination of information. People want to find stuff. They want information. They want connection. And, very often, they want to reach the companies they patronize.

Herein lies one of the major issues with corporate websites, and one that Hastings got to experience on 60 Minutes. The rule seems to be, the larger the company, the more difficult it is to find contact information for that company. Let me show you an example before moving on to Netflix.

Let’s say I’m an AT&T customer – a company that prides itself on solutions for their customers – and I want to find a contact number to inquire about my bill. Here’s what happened when I went to their website.

On the AT&T website, there is a link on the front page for “Contact Us” right at the bottom below their main photo. This is a good spot and gives you hope that it won’t be that tough to contact someone. Upon clicking the link, you get a page with a pulldown menu that asks you what kind of service you are looking for: residential, business or enterprise. This makes sense and after choosing “residential” the screen expands to reveal a request to either enter your number or enter your zip code.

Again, not a significant issue if you have a lot of different types of customers in a lot of different parts of the country. Here’s where it starts to go astray.

I entered my zip since I’m not an AT&T customer and got a secure page with a form field that is going to prompt me to enter some information describing why I want to contact them. The title of the page is “Ask a Question by Email.” Whoa! I never said I wanted email. I just want a phone number like the number printed on every bill. Why is this so difficult?

I’ve had to go through three pages just to get here and I’m still trying to get contact information. Surfers are notoriously impatient and this is alredy straining my interest. Just to move on, I type “my bill” in the field and click Continue. This takes me to a new page with multiple links at the top including Email Us, FAQ, Web Support and Call Us linked via anchors to different parts of the page. Still, the title of the page is “Ask a Question By Email.” I get the feeling they are trying to tell me something.

I click “Call Us” and am taken to the very bottom of the page to yet ANOTHER link to “View a List of Contact Numbers.” That makes four pages, plus an anchor before I am able to find the link I wanted in the first place. I click the link and get to a page full of contact numbers – exactly what I was looking for. It took me five clicks and two forms filled out to get here – way too long.

Hastings found out first hand what a pain this is when Leslie Stahl spoke with a couple in rural Maine who complained about getting deliveries late and the difficulty they had in contacting the company. They said that the company’s email system was tough to navigate and they couldn’t find a phone number for the company on the Netflix website. When asked, Hastings attempted to find the number and he couldn’t.

He found email, but let me go on record as saying I really do NOT trust customer support emails from non-computer entitites. Hell, i don’t trust big computer companies to answer my emails either, but there have been numerous times when I’ve contacted a telecom or a retail company via an email form on their site and got, at best, an automated response or a response delayed by a week, and at worst, no response at all.

The whole point of having customer service is to provide service to the customer and too many companies just ignore email in much the same way they ignore voicemail, but they have a hard time ignoring me when they answer the phone and hear my voice, which is why most of us want phone numbers in the first place. Unfortunately, too many times, companies like Netflix, AT&T and others just don’t provide that information clearly or at all.

Just to check for myself, I visited the Netflix website. I surfed around until I determined that there is no contact information on the site for anyone who isn’t already a customer. Even if you want the PR department, you have to fill out an online form – no phone numbers. Since even the CEO of the company couldn’t find a contact phone number through the member interface, I’m guessing there isn’t one on there.

To make matters worse, when you click Help, all you get is a FAQ, which isn’t all that helpful.

This is an all-too-common problem on all websites but particularly on large corporate sites where the comapny seemingly forgets that providing a connection to the customer is incredibly important and understanding that the average end user has almost no patience for clicking around a site looking for information is even more important.

How many times have you gone to the website for a retail outlet and had to look all over the page to find a link for a store locator? How many times has that store locator required a bunch of information from you just to get a number or an address? That is the opposite of good customers service and the antithesis of what a good website is supposed to do.

Just funny to see it illustrated on television by the CEO of a major corporation whose primary job is delivering content (i.e. DVD’s) to customers in an easy and timely manner.

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