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Dealing With Customers Online--Not on the Line

Technology: When TMH Corp. unplugged the phones, it sent a message to its clients: e-mail only.


TMH Corp. has a message for its customers: Don't call us.

Instead, the Los Angeles maker of high-end audio and video equipment wants e-mail.

After weighing the matter for six months, TMH Chief Executive Friederich Koenig in June yanked TMH's phone lines after sending out an e-mail notifying its 4,000 customers that "the telephone will no longer be a good way to contact us for general business."

Callers to the company's main number now hear a recording that directs them to TMH's e-mail address.

The message ends on a chirpy note: "It's the 21st century. Telephones are OK. The Web is better!"

As for faxes, Koenig shoots back rhetorically, "What's a fax?"

Physical mail? Forget it. But if you must, e-mail the company for "current instructions."

The move so far has not alienated most customers of the tiny five-person company, some of whom applaud the firm for pulling the plug, Koenig said.

For every 10 e-mails he received in favor of the new plan, Koenig got one against.

"Most people thought it made a lot of sense," he said. "But there were about three people who wanted to beat us up for what they thought was a terrible, nonhumanistic, arrogant stance. We became sort of a lightning rod for them."

Is TMH's move extremely impersonal, or is it a glimpse of the future?

With companies eager to cut costs and experiment with various forms of automation, there are arguments for both.

"This is not a one-size-fits-all world," said Paul Saffo, a director at the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif.

"For instance, I consider myself to be a loyal Amazon customer, and I remember being startled at realizing that I have never talked to a human being there. You simply cannot reach Amazon by phone. Everything's on the Web. It's an enormous cost saving for Amazon, and no one seems to view it as controversial."

Others are not so sanguine.

"I think what they're doing is a gimmick," said Clifford Stoll, author of the book "High Tech Heretic."

"What's wrong with this picture is that this plan was devised by someone who's in love with technology and doesn't realize that customer satisfaction revolves not around devices but around human relations," Stoll said.

Koenig isn't worried about losing existing customers, some of whom pay millions of dollars for TMH's theater-quality sound and video systems.

"Our customers are all on the Web," he said. "They all have the infrastructure to make the switch."

As for new customers, "no one buys TMH products on impulse. To consider us is a long, involved process. If you don't know who we are, you'll go to a receptionist. In our case, the receptionist is our Web site. Then you'll be directed to the right person via e-mail. After that, you might communicate with us all sorts of ways. The idea is that the door by which you get into the company is by our Web site. That's all."

For customers who insist on a phone call, TMH will set up a temporary number that will last hours or weeks, depending on the project.

For this story, Koenig conducted the interview on a land line that lasted a day.

What about follow-up questions? E-mail, please.

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