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The Power of Click-to-Call

The fastest-growing marketing channel is the voice telephone — especially when it turns solving a problem into making a sale.

The telephone as an instrument of retail is still worthy of notice — as was particularly evident on September 8, 2015, the day after Labor Day, when U.S. businesses received a huge number of incoming calls: 52 percent more than on an average day so far that year. This figure comes from Marchex, a leading call analytics company based in Seattle, which has nicknamed the day following the official end of summer “Telephone Tuesday.” More calls to businesses typically occur in the United States that day than on either of the two biggest shopping days: Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) and Cyber Monday (the Monday after Thanksgiving).

“Telephone Tuesday is when people head back to school, when they start focusing on their to-do list after summer — and of course, some of the volume relates to the start of the football season,” says John Busby, senior vice president of marketing and consumer insights for Marchex. Busby adds that customers favor a particular type of call on these days: They are making a costly purchase or setting up arrangements important to their lifestyle, so they ask questions about inventory, delivery, and logistics. “They want the assurance of a phone call — human interaction,” Busby says.

One example: Cable and satellite TV companies, which would be wise to prepare for Telephone Tuesday by beefing up their incoming call centers. Calls to these vendors on that day in 2015 added up to 65 percent more calls than on an average day the same year. This reflected the large number of customers who use the day to figure out which channels they want to subscribe to — and yes, in the U.S., much of that decision takes football into account. Healthcare and insurance businesses received even more call traffic, as college students heading back to the dorms purchased additional coverage. Marchex estimated those sectors’ traffic volume on Telephone Tuesday at more than 80 percent over the average day volume. Even people seeking new cars figured into the list, though not as many as during end-of-the-year auto clearance sales.

The call-makers on Telephone Tuesday were overwhelmingly millennials and generation Xers — not older baby boomers — which indicates that the telephone is still vital to younger generations (at least under the right circumstances). “We were surprised,” Busby says. “We thought [these younger cohorts] would prefer to use texting or online purchasing, but they are very comfortable doing research online and then making a live telephone call to ask questions and then actually place their order.”

But the biggest opportunity in these statistics — click-to-call marketing — doesn’t have to do with holidays. Click-to-call is the process in which customers check prices online and compare alternative items, then dial a phone number (or have their smartphone automatically dial) to finish the transaction. The concept was relatively slow to take off at first as a business offering, because it contradicted conventional wisdom. Wasn’t the point of Web-based commerce to wean customers off the costly habits of telephone call center counters, instead of driving them to make more calls?

Then, in 2010, Google introduced “call extensions” to include telephone numbers in mobile apps. This change apparently made a difference: Busby claims it resulted in 50 million click-to-calls a month. When set up in the right way, click-to-call gets impressive results. It solves customer problems, builds trust, cements loyalty, and generates a remarkable level of sales. A Marchex study analyzing 300 million calls shows that online customers in the global marketplace spent more than US$1 trillion in 2014 making this type of purchase. That approximate number is backed up by BIA Kelsey, a research and advisory company focused on local advertising markets. Figures like these are even more impressive considering that click-to-call revenues equal about half of the almost $2 trillion spent on brick-and-mortar retail, including grocery shopping. And they add up to more than three times the $300 billion spent through e-commerce.

And it’s a rapidly growing channel. Busby believes click-to-call activity will reach 1 billion in 2015, and double to 2 billion by 2020. Facebook recently introduced a click-to-call functionality and Google ads have just begun offering “call only” ads with no website click-through. “The consumer path-to-purchase has changed because of the smartphone,” he says. “We live both on and offline, and the smartphone connects these two worlds.”

The popularity of click-to-call also says a lot about human behavior. Busby referred to a study of U.K. consumers by Digital Strategy Consulting showing that consumers trust e-commerce more when a telephone number is included in the contact options. The best of these companies know how to turn solving a customer problem into making a sale. Conversely, companies that design their information architecture to discourage people from calling in — for example, hiding the number or making it difficult to click through — are opening themselves up to the possibility of losing customers. When Amazon, notoriously difficult to reach by phone, acquired customer-friendly Zappos in 2010, one of the most widely remarked-upon aspects of the deal was the incoming company’s influence on improving Amazon’s call centers.

Consumers trust e-commerce more when a telephone number is included. These companies turn solving a customer problem into making a sale.

In the last few years, advertisers have caught on. Marchex research shows that last year, Google raked in $4 billion in ads targeting click-to-call. “Google realized that online searches were moving from the desktop to the phone,” Busby recalls. “So they set out to find out what the customer wanted to do after his or her mobile search, and they found two things: make a phone call or visit a store.”

Yet despite these numbers, the performance of click-to-call delivery is dismal. Industry statistics show that one in five phone calls made to a business are dropped: The customer hangs up before actually connecting, put off by lengthy hold times or by being shunted directly to voice mail. “The less hold time,” says Busby, “the more likely the customer is to buy.” Not surprisingly, the length of hold time resulted in an increase in the use of profanity during the ensuing call: Marchex’s 2013 study showed that 1 in 82 conversations with satellite TV companies contained a curse word, while 1 in 123 conversations with cable TV providers (whose hold times tend to be longer) contained foul language.

To really reap the returns from this type of marketing, companies need to take customer connection seriously — customers want staff to genuinely understand their needs. One sign that businesses are beginning to understand this is the migration of U.S. company call centers back in-house. Keeping the call center close to headquarters may cost more, but the increased customer satisfaction is worth the price. Offshore call centers turn out to have higher hold times, more customer hang-ups, and a lower rate of conversion to sales.

It can take months to build true click-to-call capability, which is why company leaders might consider starting now. Telephone Tuesday is not the overall busiest day in the U.S. for this channel — in 2015, that day was Monday, July 6: the first working day after Independence Day weekend. It’s not quite clear why that day was so popular — but perhaps procrastinators across the country woke up that morning ready to plan their summer vacations.

Shellie Karabell

Shellie Karabell is a writer, editor, and communications consultant, based in Paris, France.

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