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No matter how many times you yell “representative" into the phone, you won’t reach an employee at Frontier Airlines.

The budget carrier dropped its phone service option last month, leaving customers to use chat functions or social media to resolve issues. The airline joins a growing group of companies—from Breeze Airways to Resy to Facebook—that eliminate or make phone numbers extra hard for customers to find. Instead, they rely on automated or text-based customer service. Others still have operators, but are pushing more customers to use online services rather than the phone.

Consumers say those options leave them spending hours sorting through FAQ lists, sending emails to nowhere and talking to less-than-helpful chatbots to resolve issues that could have taken minutes to fix with a human on the phone.

Olivia Roach, a 26-year-old account executive at an ad agency, says she spent over five hours glued to devices trying to change her visiting mother’s itinerary with Frontier last week to help her mother deal with a family emergency. When she couldn’t change the trip online, she says she called Frontier. An automated message instructed her to check the customer-support section of the website. She was then disconnected.

Ms. Roach, who lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., says she, her father and brother all tried to solve the problem via chat before a representative resolved the issue on Facebook Messenger. Ms. Roach says the experience was so frustrating that her family won’t fly Frontier again soon.

Frontier says the shift to digital service ensures customers get the information they need as efficiently as possible. The airline says it had found that most customers prefer communicating via digital channels and that live agent support is available 24/7.

In an investor presentation last month, the airline said voice calls are “unscalable, inefficient and expensive," and leave an “avenue for customer negotiation." While phone agents can only talk to one customer, chat agents can talk to three, the company said.

Yet as much as some people dislike customer-service calls, they are not yet sold on digital helpers. A 2,200-person Morning Consult poll conducted for The Wall Street Journal shows that about half of respondents said they had to search a company website extensively to find a number in the past year, and 41% of all respondents said no number was available. Some 43% of survey respondents said they prefer talking with a customer-service rep over the phone, while 5% prefer talking to a bot through instant messaging.

More restaurants have made the switch to online reservation and wait-list systems to save on head count, often their most expensive line item, restaurant managers say. In the U.S., 67% of reservation bookings are digital, up from 56% in 2019, according to reservation platform SevenRooms.

Taste of Texas in Houston is only taking online reservations in December, when co-owner Edd Hendee says call volume increases dramatically.

The pandemic nearly wiped out the business, Mr. Hendee says, and inflation continues to pose a threat. He says the restaurant raised wages about 25% since 2020 to retain its staff of 200.

“At today’s prevailing wages, you can’t pay someone to just answer questions on the phone," he says.

Pawp, a veterinary telehealth platform, recently took its public phone number off its website because owners were detailing their pets’ medical issues to general customer support representatives, chief executive Marc Atiyeh says. “They were kind of confused about how to get in touch with a vet," Mr. Atiyeh says.

Now, a chat assistant on the website offers answers to frequently asked questions and responses from a representative during business hours. Mr. Atiyeh says customers can use the chat to set up time to talk to someone on the phone if there is an issue that can’t be worked out electronically.

David Truog, a technology and design analyst at advisory firm Forrester Research, says more chatbots are coming.

“Companies are taking this short-term view of reducing the load on employees and shunting customers off to poorly designed chatbots," Mr. Truog says.

Dan Ellis says he couldn’t resolve issues with Ivy, a digital tool used at Caesars Entertainment properties in Las Vegas, when he stayed at the Flamingo Las Vegas Hotel & Casino for a conference in October. The 48-year-old program manager from Salt Lake City says he texted Ivy when the hot water twice went out in his room, and because it wasn’t helpful, didn’t bother texting when he found gum and hair in the bedsheets.

When Mr. Ellis tried calling the front desk, he says he was redirected to a general call-services center. Meanwhile, the line at reception often snaked around the hotel lobby.

“It’s just shouting into the void," he says.

A Caesars spokeswoman says Mr. Ellis called the front desk shortly after he texted Ivy, and a service ticket was issued for the hot water outage, which took time to resolve. She said it is Caesars’s goal to exceed guest expectations and the company apologizes to Mr. Ellis for the inconvenience.

Brendon Sullivan, 44, travels frequently from Boston for his job in portfolio management for an investment company. He says extended hold times and self-service have made his customer-service experiences more painful.

He describes the process of updating his driver’s license number on his Hertz profile as an endless loop between self-help portions of the rental-car company’s website and live operators. Hertz still hadn’t resolved the issue after a year in which Mr. Sullivan rented half a dozen cars from the company, but was able to update his profile Tuesday after The Wall Street Journal reached out.

“I recognize the travel industry is still trying to recover" from the pandemic, Mr. Sullivan says. “But it is still frustrating that you can’t get the same level of service as you had before."

A Hertz spokeswoman says, “We are committed to providing excellent service and assisting our customers at our locations and through their preferred support channel."

The frustration with not being able to get in touch with a real person birthed a whole business.

As the director of operations at GetHuman, Adam Goldkamp helps maintain a free database offering the best way to get a response from more than 10,000 companies.

The site receives three million visits a month from frustrated consumers, a number that has steadily risen as companies make their contact info more difficult to find, Mr. Goldkamp says.

“It’s not a good time for companies to be doing that, because users are very particular about where they are spending their money right now," he says. “It’s a bad time to be making enemies."

 

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