Customer service via online chat is gaining popularity as people get fed up with hold times.

"If you’d like to press ‘1,’ press ‘1.’ If you’d like to press ‘2,’ press ‘2.’"

Toll-free customer service sometimes seems designed to test how many levels of options someone will endure before being granted access to an actual human being. The desire to make an end run around interactive voice response (IVR) systems has spawned a website called gethuman.com that collects the series of numbers required to reach an operator at any given company. Rising frustration with phone-based customer service is one reason for a nearly 50% increase in the number of online consumers who contacted customer service via text chat, as Jupiter Research found in a May 2006 study.

It is easy to understand why companies like IVR — the more customers they can service with computer programs, the fewer number of humans who have to be paid to do the job. This works especially well with frequently asked questions. Beyond IVR, companies feel that phone representatives almost always meet their customer service needs, over retail branches, Web sites and several other channels — with IM rated last, according to firms responding to a June 2006 study by Forrester Research.

What is surprising is that customers don’t really want to use instant messaging as a way to get service, according to an August 2006 study conducted on behalf of Discover Card. Nearly three out of four respondents said that they prefer toll-free numbers over customer service via e-mail, online forms or instant messaging.

B2B marketers for both phone-based and IM-based customer service systems can each make a strong case. Phone-based customer service is by far the most-preferred method of customers and companies alike — just make sure it works well, without unduly long hold times or confusing menus. For IM, the argument is that customers are increasingly using it instead of the phone — thanks to unduly long hold times and confusing menus.

More here.