“Oh, there’s never a dumb question,” said the customer service representative at Kiehl’s 800 number. I had just called and told her that I had accidentally used the Superbly Efficient Anti-Perspirant & Deodorant Cream as a hand lotion and didn’t know what to do. “It’s a gentle product. But it is meant as an antiperspirant,” she said patiently.
“But is this an emergency? Should I go to the ER?” I asked in a panic.
“There won’t be any damage, but your skin will certainly feel dryer,” she said clearly, as if she were talking to a slow friend.
I couldn’t have been more of a moron, and if I were her, I would have broken down after the first two minutes. (“How do you even get dressed in the morning? Nimrod!”) But she was much more forgiving than me. And when I contacted a dozen other beauty hotlines—from Lubriderm to La Mer—with similarly embarrassing yet oddly valid questions, I got the same response. Each and every number was manned (or, rather, wo-manned) by a patient female technician happy to help.
Customer service hotlines date back to the late Sixties, when AT&T, following in the footsteps of the UK’s “freephone” service, brought the concept of 800 numbers to the U.S. Half a century later, in an age when one can watch a YouTube video on how to apply false eyelashes while simultaneously chatting about bronzer on makeupalley.com, it seems a wonder that they still exist. Look on the back of just about any cosmetics package, however, and you’ll find an 800, 888, or 866 number. What’s more, customers continue to call them. “We still receive the most contacts via phone versus any other method,” says Clairol consumer relations manager Sarah Schlosser. “Women do a lot of research on their own, but a one-on-one consultation provides reassurance that you just can’t get from an app.”
According to Sheila L. Sullivan, director of global consumer affairs at Coty, the need for this sort of reassurance has only grown in recent years. “It may have started with the recession,” she says. “Consumers have become more demanding in establishing value. They will scrutinize; they will research more. They are quicker to hold the brand accountable.”
Beyond the economic factor, there’s also the fact that beauty products have become increasingly specialized and complicated. Short of having a stylist or doctor on hand at all times, who else are you going to call to find out whether it’s safe to, say, get a spray tan when you’ve been using Retin-A, the Clarisonic face brush, and a toner made from matsutake mushrooms?
That might actually be a good question. But as the Kiehl’s rep said, in the world of beauty hotlines, stupid questions don’t exist. Calling Origins, I listed several products containing fruit extracts or nutty bits and asked what would happen if I ingested them. “It’s not advisable,” said the person on the other line soberly.