In the article "The Future of Customer Service" on msnbc.com (from  - Entrepreneur.com), writer Sarah Pierce looks at the impact of the Internet and now-ubiquitous mobile technology on consumer expectations of customer service.  We've come a long way in the last few years since PC World's report a couple of years ago that found "one in four online merchants either don't, won't, or didn't answer basic product questions."  But apparently there is still room for improvement.

Pierce notes that online chat and instant messaging systems have helped to connect customers eager to get some face time (or would that be screen time?) with knowledgeable customer service representatives and solve a variety of technical problems and answer their questions.  According to Nielson Mobile, more than 46 million people in the U.S. used mobile search just between July and September 2007.

"Whether it's information on a product, questions about a service or simple driving directions, consumers want answers, and they want them now."

I don't think that the desire to get an answer 'now' is any different than it has been in the past.  My assumption is that we expect more as we are doing so many things and ultimately have more demands on our waking hours. ;)

Back to our story.  In this piece, Pierce takes a quick look at ChaCha, a web-based search and mobile text answering service that allows you to text 242242 ('ChaCha') on your SMS phone and get answers to your text questions from a <gasp> real, live person. 

ChaCha is the brainchild of serial innovator Scott Jones, the man behind Boston Technology (the voicemail system company) and Gracenote (originally Escient), a behind-the-scenes company that provides the Gracenote MusicID service to many providers, allowing the automagical recognition of CDs, digital music and streaming audio. (A personal note: Ty Roberts of Jam Session fame and my old friend Jim Hollingsworth from ReplayTV are both execs at Gracenote.)  Scott has 17 patents pending for ChaCha.

ChaCha's search engine is provided by InfoSpace, and returns results from a number of different search engines, including Google, Yahoo! Search and Ask.com.  (Also visit the ChaCha Underground page to see the most recent ChaCha results.)

"It's sort of like asking a really smart friend, except at the end of the day, you can ask anything and get an accurate answer," says [Brad] Bostic [co-founder of ChaCha.com, a people-powered search engine that, unlike Google, uses real people to provide search results]. To test it, Bostic suggests asking an obscure question, such as whether or not camels have eyelids. The answer, three eyelids, is delivered within two minutes, followed by a single link to the source web page.

"Other mobile services like Yahoo! oneSearch, Google Mobile and 4INFO.net, use an analog search engine that provides a convoluted list of web links or answers, forcing the consumer to dig around for the answer they need."

Let's put that to the test. 

First, what's an 'analog search engine'?  Is that like the analogue recordings record albums, grainy 35mm films and cassette tapes?  ;)

To start my quite unscientific test, I used the traditional Internet version of the ChaCha service, using a ChaCha guide.

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For my query, I typed in "what is Microsoft's customer support phone number in South America?"

Whoops:

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Contrary to IE's advice, I clicked thru to the ChaCha web page, and found that I had to register for a new ChaCha account.  Registering will give me "access to searching with live guided experts and other great features of ChaCha."

OK, done.

Now, another couple of minutes to check my email for an activation email that allows me to verify your account.  Unfortunately the resulting confirmation mail was found in my Junk mail folder, so some work to do here as I have my spam filter set to a very basic level. ;(

imageAfter confirming that I had a valid email address, I was able to quickly log on to the service.

I was welcomed to a "Guide Session" with Michelle.  After welcoming me to ChaCha and asking how I was, Michelle went about finding an answer to my question.  Assuming that this pretexting was a strategy to engage the customer and buy Michelle some time, I received an update to the real-time status noting that "Michelle has found results!" 

Quickly, the links popped up in the right-hand nav of the web page.  So, after only a couple of minutes, Michelle found the information I asked for, including this accurate one on TechNet.

"There ya go," typed Michelle.

In my own effort, I found a link to the phone numbers on the Microsoft International Support using the Live Search Toolbar in just a few seconds.  I'll admit that -- as is often the case -- you do have to hunt and peck for an answer through pages of search results to find the answer.  But often times the answer is in the top few results, and this result was in the top three.

As a further comparison, I entered the obscure question that Bostic suggested and quickly found the answer in a few seconds on my mobile device, using Live Search Mobile.  The answer was also displayed in the query search results on Live Search:

Howstuffworks "Do the humps on camels hold water?"

Do the humps on camels hold water? ... maturity in five years, a female in three to four years. Camels actually have three eyelids!

OK, one more shot.  To try my best at a ChaCha version of stump the band, I asked a more obscure question as a follow up:

"Where can I find an English owner's manual for the Sony DVP-CX850D?"

It took ChaCha about 15 seconds to find a guide to help me with this search.  My new guide, Sakina, asked: "Hello I will be helping you with your search? Just to clarify, what can I help you find today?"

I retyped my original question in plain English: "I am looking for an English owner's manual for the Sony DVP-CX850D CD DVD player."

Sakina is connected and finding results for you.  Your results will begin to appear below.

Each ChaCha guide has a ChaCha ID number, and Sakina's was 53363.  First, ChaCha's Sakina found the service manual for the Sony player, which also comes up in many search engine results.  But Sakina wasn't done.

Sakina took just a couple minutes more to find the manual on Sony's US site (which is not obvious, let me tell you) at Sony eSupport for the DVP-CX850D.  (In case you have one of these old tried and true multi-disc changer/players, the manual is available here for direct download as a PDF.) 

Results

  1. Service Manual free download,schematics,datasheets,eeprom bins,pcb,repair info for test equipment and electronics - Sponsored Listing.  This link has been recommended by a ChaCha Guide and Certified through our GuideRank process. ChaCha brings human power to search results.

    http://www.eserviceinfo.com/index.php?what=search2&searchstring=DVP-CX850D

  2. Sony eSupport - DVP-CX850D - Manuals / Specs / Warranty  - DVP-CX850D 

    This link has been recommended by a ChaCha Guide and Certified through our GuideRank process. ChaCha brings human power to search results.  http://esupport.sony.com/US/perl/model-documents.pl?mdl=DVPCX850D

A little under ten minutes, Sakina wished me a nice day and we were done, with search results in hand (so to speak).  Both were "ChaCha Guide Recommended Results" -- the first I noticed was a sponsored listing.  Not only are the search results listed on the results page, but they are also saved under "My Searches" in your ChaCha account, remaining there for 60 days.

imageI was given the opportunity to rate my guide, and I gave Sakina a "great" rating. 

And overall a thumbs-up on ChaCha based on this limited experience.  Once again, the power of a community to provide better service.

As a side note, I found this manual before Sakina did in a little under a minute using Windows Live Search.

Overall, I find that web search (no matter which engine you use) is much better as a whole than I have experienced in the past, as companies continue innovate and refine their services. 

But wait... there's more. (with a nod to Ron Popiel)

On Scott's blog in his post titled The phone number that changed the world…, he invites readers to "try experimental 1-800-224-2242 from your mobile phone.  ChaCha for your mobile phone, which returns results via a text message.

In short, it just works. Try it... it's very cool.

As noted on the Live Search blog last fall, the Search team focused on some key areas to improve:

"We pored over your feedback, analyzed the data and talked to thousands of users.  How major is this?  It's our biggest update since our debut in January 2005."

    • Relevance, relevance, relevance.  We’ve quadrupled the size of our index, which means we can return the right results for your searches.  Improvements like enhanced ranking algorithms, auto-spell correction and better stop word handling help us return the best results. 
    • Speed.  Pages load much faster than before.
    • Streamlined look and feel.  We focused on the end-to-end experience from the homepage throughout the site.  For example, search results are now easier to read thanks to work on typography, contrast, colors and spacing.
    • More high-interest content.  You asked us for more in Entertainment, Shopping, Health, Local and Video search and we’re happy to deliver it.

For complex issues, ChaCha may be a step up, with 30,000 live, trained guides (each complete "a special training program called Search University to ensure their answers are as accurate and locally sensitive as possible") to answer questions. 

In addition to the comprehensive corporate support websites that many manufacturers offer today, many companies offer online chat support.  These sites go beyond the basic hunt and peck approach for finding old manuals, drivers and FAQs.  I've written here about Dell's online customer service and support, having successfully used Dell's Hardware Chat to diagnose and get repair tickets submitted for hardware issues.  And I've personally had success with HP's online support options and (as a customer) Microsoft online customer service and live chat

(A plug, in case you missed the link: Microsoft Online Chat is available for customers in the States Monday through Friday, 11 AM to 8 PM (Eastern); international customers, please visit our Microsoft Worldwide page to choose from our Microsoft sites worldwide.)

Some manufacturers are including real time systems built-in to their products.  Aside from the diagnostics packages and software built into many computers these days, I read in gizmodo's CES coverage of the Sharp press conference of the new Aquos Net.  With it, customers can get online customer support via the Aquos Advantage Live tool: Sharp customer service agents connect directly to the TV and remotely optimize picture quality or diagnose problems. Very cool.

imageYou may also find the answer you're looking for with a rudimentary Wiki search, which you can simply do by entering the search term in your favourite engine and appending the word "+wiki" at the end.  More often than not, this will turn up any Wikipedia articles on the topic, as my son found whilst researching Admiral Byrd.  

More info:

Tags: Microsoft, Customer Service, Customer Support, Windows, Search.

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