I remember back in the day when many of us first got on email and we tried to do everything in it. When we tried to completely replace real-time phone calls and in-person meetings, it was an abject failure: you still needed that give-and-take. And many corporations that put up email support or customer response inboxes quickly found out that they needed to do more than just assign the inbound messages to a staffer: they actually had to respond with a meaningful answer. I remember an article that I wrote back in 2000 where I sent out a test email inquiry to 13 financial services firms and timed how long it took before I got a response. Some sent out automated responses quickly and followed with a more meaningful reply within an hour, some did worse. Ironically, one site where it was hard to find an email address now has one of the currently best self-service Web sites, USAA.com.
Then came the era of Instant Messaging, and suddenly we didn't have to worry about email response times because we could connect with someone in real time. Some firms got into IM in a big way, particularly to connect remote work teams. And parents found out that IM was another tool in their arsenal of trying to track down their teens' whereabouts in those dicey after-school hours.
Lately everyone is talking Twitter, and that makes IM seem slow. Twitter and I are still getting used to each other, and I am still not sure that it will be tremendously useful to me in the long run. But it is sure fun to experiment with, and thanks to Bank of America being on it, I managed to save myself a bundle in overdraft fees about a month ago. But that is a story for another time. What I have found is that I am sending and receiving fewer IMs these days.
Some of the more interesting experiments in the Twittersphere have to do with aggregating Tweets from a variety of different sources. Take a look at scienceinthetriangle.org, a news site that reports on tech events in the Raleigh-Durham area that is the labor of love of a bunch of volunteers but is probably the best place to go to get up-to-the-minute news and blog posts in the area.
And then there is a new protocol and product coming from Google by way of Sydney Australia called Wave. It was announced a few weeks ago, and while I am still analyzing it, I can tell you that the near-instant response times that we get from our IMs isn't going to be fast enough. What Wave does is similar to a product called Etherpad.com that allows for real-time collaborative composition of documents, but oh so much more. You can thread your conversations, add wiki-like tools to do joint editing, and add email notification and Twitter-like status streams all in a neat bundle. The 80-minute demo video is definitely worth watching, at least the first third, here: http://wave.google.com/
But before you abandon all hope of every staying current with the latest Internet fad, let's just go back to first principles for a moment and think about what your expectations of customer response times should be these days, and whether your company is coming anywhere close to fulfilling these expectations. With some people (such as my condo board), I have no expectations that I will get a timely response that is just the type of folks that they are or they just aren't that service-oriented. With others, such as my Tweets to Bank of America, a few hours to reply was better than anything that I have gotten from them. Previously, I had to wait on hold or in line down at my very busy local branch for at least 30 minutes. For other businesses, overnight is still a reasonable expectation.
What I am saying here is that before you scrap yet another response system, take a few days to conduct a census of your customer-facing staff and see exactly what they are delivering now. And maybe try to improve the human side of your response systems that have nothing to do with any underlying technology.
I have no doubt that Wave represents a new way of thinking about how to interact with each other and work together. And while it might be a while before we can actually touch the technology, in the meantime let's not lose sight of how we work with our customers and give them the best possible service.
David Strom is an expert on Internet and networking technologies who was the former editor-in-chief at Network Computing, Tom's Hardware.com, and DigitalLanding.com. He currently writes regularly for PC World, Baseline Magazine, and the New York Times and is also a professional speaker, podcaster and blogs at strominator.com and WebInformant.tv