I had one of those terrible and all-too-typical experiences yesterday. I had to call a customer service number. I called, struggling with the voice-activated answering system, cursing vociferously in hopes of triggering some sort of special mechanism to connect me directly to a real person. Finally my turn in the phone queue came and - of course, this is always how the story goes - the customer service rep was able to pull up my account information, verify it, answer my question, mail me the necessary paperwork (seriously, in 2011) and tell me to have a nice day. I waited on hold for about 20 minutes; talking to someone took about four minutes.

As I sat on hold, an automated voice reminded me that there were many things I could do if I went to the organization's website instead. Alas, not in my case. The website had some forms and an FAQ, sure, but much to my chagrin, I had to call the toll-free number.

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I may have a bias towards online help desks as opposed to phone-based ones; I live on the Web, not on the phone. And it may be that as we conduct more and more business and e-commerce online, the toll-free number and the customer service hotline will fade away. But how far away from an online-only - or even predominantly online - customer service world are we?

Pretty far. Most companies do still rely on the phone for customer service, even if they have a website. But there are a number of tools that are moving the help desk online - from collecting simple feedback to more complicated troubleshooting.

Forums: Forums are probably one of the oldest ways of communicating with users online, and as always, the usefulness of a forum for customer service depends on the level of activity there - from CSRs and from other users. There are several companies that offer Web services to set up public and private forums - for user feedback and inquiries - including Uservoice.

Customer Service Apps: One of the benefits of using third-party services to help manage the online help desk is the ability to tap into a number of new apps. These allow customer service reps to answer questions and fulfill support tickets while mobile. (See Klint Flinley's recent post 6 Help Desk and Customer Service Apps for the iPad.) The customer support software-as-a-service company ZenDesk offers an iPad app, for example, that gives agents the ability to manage their entire ticket workflow from the iPad by editing tickets, assigning them to different agents and tagging entries. Other companies offer remote access to users' computers, so as to help assist them directly with problems on their machines.

Social Media: Despite the buzz about social media, the vast majority of companies do not yet use social media to help with customer service efforts. But that's changing, in no small part because customers are demanding it. Gartner predicts that within five years, social media will replace phone call centers in more than 40% of the top 1,000 companies.

Clearly customer support is moving online. Having been on hold far too long, I can't wait.

Photo by atroszko