We live in an age of instant gratification. Thanks to the internet and mobile technology, the ability to access information, products and services is at our fingertips 24/7. Is it any wonder, then, that consumers are beginning to expect the same of customer service? Whether it's information on a product, questions about a service or simple driving directions, consumers want answers, and they want them now.

Instant Customer Service
Since 2002, the use of live chat and instant messaging to connect consumers with live service reps online has grown remarkably. Companies like ChatStat and LivePerson help businesses set up two-way live IM chats between consumers and customer service reps to instantly answer consumer questions online. The newest trend, however, is moving beyond online to mobile search.

"People spend a certain amount of time online, but a much greater amount of time connected to their mobile devices," says Brad Bostic, co-founder of ChaCha.com, a people-powered search engine that, unlike Google, uses real people to provide search results. (See "Rise to the Top" in the August 2007 issue of Entrepreneur magazine.)

ChaCha moved into the mobile realm in January 2008 with the first ever text answering service that allows consumers to text a question to 242242 (spells ChaCha) and receive a simple answer from a real person within minutes.

"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 Bostic. 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 and Google Mobile, 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.

Bostic says that the Google-style searching complicates things because it means digging through an unfiltered list of sources to get the answer. "There's no computer out there smart enough to make that process simple," he says. "We think that the only way to deliver simple access to answers on the go is with the injection of human intelligence."

The Human Quotient
Perhaps even more important than receiving information on the go is the ability to filter and receive this information from a live human being. No matter how much technology consumers rely on, they still want the ability to connect with a live human being when a question needs answering.

The other key to providing accurate customer service is providing local service reps--not connecting consumers to a rep based in a foreign call center. Many times, a problem cannot be communicated well enough to produce an accurate answer. Says Bostic, "The reality is, so much is lost in the sense of context."

The Benefits and Drawbacks
Of course, as with any human-driven service, there's room for error. One of the biggest drawbacks of a human-powered answer service is bad information. Some early users of ChaCha were disappointed to discover that they didn't receive accurate answers. ChaCha has since combated that problem with increased training. All guides are required to complete a special training program called Search University to ensure their answers are as accurate and locally sensitive as possible. With 30,000 guides in the U.S., they've also created a community for their guides to connect to other guides and as well as the tools they need to provide answers effectively.

Another question raised by early ChaCha skeptics was how they would prevent guides from promoting one website or service. It could be very easy, for example, for a company to plant a guide with the agenda to direct all questions about certain products or services to their own company. Although this is conceivably a viable problem, it just isn't realistic. With 30,000 guides fielding random questions, the chance of any one guide receiving enough similar questions to accomplish this is way too slim.

When all is said and done, the benefits of a providing mobile instant access to live human reps far outweighs the drawbacks. According to Nielson Mobile, more than 46 million people in the U.S. used mobile search between the months of July and September 2007, alone. With so many people turning to their mobile phones for text messaging and mobile search, it's an easy, cost-effective way for businesses to provide instant customer service.