If your're like me, when the need to communicate with a large service organisation arises you probably think twice before sending off an email query.
Email may have revolutionised personal and business communications, but it has a bad reputation when it comes to eliciting meaningful responses from the customer service department of big corporations.
Sure, businesses typically list a contact email address on their website but there's no telling if or when a reply will arrive, and how helpful it will be if it does turn up.
It turns out that large organisations are cottoning on to consumer cynicism and frustrations around how they handle their customer-service inboxes.
Internet router company Linksys is an example of a business that has recently changed the way it interacts with visitors to its website. Linksys no longer offers an email address for customers who have technical support queries.
Instead they are invited to phone the company, join an online forum or connect with a technician through a text-based "live chat" session.
Linksys is a customer of RightNow Technologies, a Nasdaq-listed software business focused on helping its client companies use the web to improve "the customer experience" with technologies such as live chat, while at the same time reducing operating costs.
I spoke to RightNow founder and CEO Greg Gianforte when he was in the country this month. Gianforte is a serial entrepreneur with an engineering degree and a masters in computer science. In 1994, he sold IT business, Brightwork Developments, to security giant McAfee for US$10 million.
After a failed attempt at early retirement, the hunting and fishing enthusiast set up RightNow in Bozeman, Montana, a haven for outdoor recreationalists. Gianforte is an enthusiastic visitor to our shores because of the outdoor pursuits on offer down here.
Gianforte says RightNow clients moving to live chat communications on their websites are typically reducing email queries by 30 to 50 per cent. While responding to a customer query via chat is initially more expensive than replying to an email, issues are resolved quicker, meaning the overall cost is lower.
"Companies think they're delivering a great experience when they have people available to answer the phone, but the reality is consumers don't want to talk to people on the phone," he says.
"The ideal customer experience is when they don't have to call at all. If that's not possible and they do have an inquiry, ideally they'd like to get their answer immediately either through their cellphone or over the web or maybe through some other interaction like live chat."
Gianforte says 35 per cent of RightNow customers plan to implement chat this year.
"It's not unlike what ATMs did for banking. We're really providing an informational A" that corporations can plug into their website so, 24/7, consumers can help themselves. They don't have to wait for the call centre to be open, they don't have to wait for emails to be responded to. This just delivers a better experience and drives cost out of the business."
The internet has shifted the power from the retailer and the service provider into the hands of the consumer, who now has little tolerance for poor service.
"When somebody gets it right, that sets the bar of performance for every other company regardless of industry because as consumers we recognise when somebody takes care of us and we recognise when somebody doesn't meet our expectations."
In the New Zealand market, NZ Post subsidiary Datamail recently renewed a six-year-old exclusive arrangement as RightNow's local agent.
Long-standing RightNow customers include Air New Zealand and Telecom. The company has recently signed up Mighty River Power, Fly Buys operator Loyalty New Zealand and the University of Auckland. Alison Higgins-Miller, a Kiwi who oversees RightNow's regional business as Asia Pacific vice-president, says nine of Datamail's top-10 clients use RightNow technology.
While there's no doubt the company has tapped into a strong market for tools that service businesses need, it is also playing in a competitive arena.
RightNow's share price tumbled 20 per cent last month when its profit forecast disappointed investors.
"I think there's a lot of hesitancy about the US economy right now," says Gianforte.
"We have not seen a slowdown in our business.
"We're in a little bit more robust position because we save our clients a lot of money and when economies do slow down the one place companies spend money is on saving money, so that is to our advantage."