Originally posted to the Commakazi Speek blog on 12-20-2010
With the news that OfficeMax and Office Depot will merge, this might be useful to the new marketing team there.

I used to think that it was clever to convert a telephone number into a word, using the letters on a telephone keypad. “What a great way to make a phone number easy to remember,” I thought back then.

But technology (actual mobile phone design) has changed all that, and companies that use words, rather than numbers, in their advertisements are showing that they are out-of-touch. And that’s exactly the effect that they are having with their device-dependent customers.

It actually is annoying to have to hunt-and-peck on a telephone when all you have to go on is the “secret word.” That’s why I told my church’s marketing team years ago that it was fine to list the phone number for Joy Lutheran Church as 1-847-362-4JOY, but that they should include the final four numbers in parentheses (1-847-362-4569).

What back then was annoying, today is harmful to potential sales and customer satisfaction. That’s because the correlation between letters and numbers on mobile phone keypads is no longer standard.

Here’s an example. I wanted to call OfficeMax regarding its MaxPerks(r) reward program. The only phone number listed in the MaxPerks brochure is 877.OFFICEMAX. The first thing I noticed is that OFFICEMAX is nine letters, and U.S. telephone numbers (minus the area code) are seven digits. So OfficeMax has tacked on two letters that are meaningless–and confusing–to a customer trying to dial.

The adventure continues, depending on the customer’s mobile phone. Here is a keypad similar to the one on my Nokia phone.nokia-phone-keyboard

See how each number 0-9 is assigned to just one letter? That is not the way that old-time landline telephone keypads are designed. But more and more people are opting away from landlines, and using their mobile phones exclusively.

So when I tried to dial 1.877.OFFICEMAX, I experienced this:

◦The letter O–no corresponding number
◦The letter F–the number 4
◦The letter I–no corresponding number
◦The letter C–no corresponding number
◦The letter E–no corresponding number
◦The letter M–the number 0
◦The letter A–no corresponding number
◦The letter X–no corresponding number

Without the actual digits shared in the OfficeMax brochure, I was totally unable to call them. Frustrating! Would that be the case for my Blackberry friends? Oh yes!

blackberry-keyboardHowever, their numbers 0-9 are assigned to different letters than on my Nokia, so the picture is even more muddled. Imagine a Nokia user trying to share a “decoded” number with his colleague using a Blackberry. They’ll never get the number right!

Ok, since so many creative types adore all things Apple, surely the iPhone designers anticipated this issue and made an app for it. Not really:

apple-iphone-keyboardIn fact, I’d say that iPhone users really have no chance, because their phone’s keypad makes no attempt to correlate numbers with letters. Perhaps it’s for the best, right?

If you work in advertising, marketing or sales, point your communicators to this post. It will save your customers much frustration, and prevent you from having a real “hang-up” with customer satisfaction.