I was speaking with clients today about their views on telephone customer service. One believed that his customers liked calling the call center to solve problems with a “human touch.” His colleague countered that telephone customer service is simply too expensive to be giving away that “human touch.”

I think they are both correct. And they are both incorrect. Why? Because I believe one of the most common customer servicve misperceptions is that customers prefer to telephone you.

It’s true that the most commonly used customer service channel is the telephone. According to Forrester’s North American Technographics Customer Experience Online Survey, Q4 2009, 69% of online consumers used the telephone to speak with a customer service agent (followed by 55% who emailed customer service and 55% who used a company’s Help or FAQ section.)

It’s also true that telephone customer service has the highest satisfaction compared to other online customer service channels, at 69%. Only 60% of people who used email for customer service were satisfied and 56% of those who used Help or FAQ’s.

These are compelling numbers. But do they mean that people want to call? Or do these numbers mean that alternative online customer service channels are absent or lackluster?

Here is another compelling number: 72% of US online consumers prefer to use a company’s Web site to get answers to their questions rather than contact companies via telephone or email; roughly half this group strongly prefers self-reliance.

I’m not saying that telephone customer service should be replaced. Far from it; there are times when consumers have complex questions or an emotional need such as reassurance that only the telephone can satisfy. But much of the time, the telephone is simply not customers’ first choice. The telephone is also not always the most cost effective choice. Telephone customer service is typically $6 – $12 per contact. There are potentially significant savings to be realized through channels such as click-to-chat, virtual agents, co-browsing, or improved self-service. Not to mention customer satisfaction.