“Digital Natives” and the end of traditional hotline support

Are we seeing a new generation growing up who are shying away from telephone-based support in favour of text-based support?

This is one conclusion we can draw from a New York Times article last week on teenagers (whom it called “Digital Natives”) and technology. It reported on research from the Pew Research Center that indicated:

Children used to actually talk to their friends. Those hours spent on the family princess phone or hanging out with pals in the neighborhood after school vanished long ago. But now, even chatting on cellphones or via e-mail (through which you can at least converse in paragraphs) is passé.

The traditional model of support has clearly changed. In the 1990s, people used to talk of the four levels of support:

  1. The 50 foot guru  – You ask the person within 50 foot of your desk who is more knowledgeable than you.
  2. The 200 foot guru – If the 50 foot guru can’t help you, you leave your desk and go and ask the most knowledgeable person who is within a 200 feet range of you.
  3. Hotline Support  – You phone someone who is an expert. Typically, this is the Support Desk.
  4. The manual/Help file –  If you cannot get through to an expert on the phone who can answer your question, you consult the manual.

Essentially, people followed the easiest path to solve their problem.

Arguably, we’re now seeing a generation growing up, primarily those under 27, who behave differently. For them, the four levels of support are:

  1. Automated Search – You search for the answer on the Web.
  2. Human Search – You ask friends and acquaintances by text, Twitter, email or Instant Messaging.
  3. Hotline Support – You phone someone who is an expert. Typically, this is the Support Desk.
  4. The 50 foot guru –  You ask the person within 50 foot of your desk who is more knowledgeable than you.

So what’s happened to the manual – where does that fit in?

In many cases, the manual is now a collection of Web pages. It’s moved up to the top of list, although many may not recognise it as a manual. It might not have an index, page numbers or a table of contents, but it serves the same function.

If  companies want to sell to “Generation Y” , they will need to ensure the ways they assist their users reflect this preference for text-based content. This means, they’ll need to:

  1. Understand how their customer base wants to receive support information.
  2. Package and deliver the information through a number of different channels.
  3. Use people who are good at writing to write text-based information.
  4. Have an efficient method for managing and publishing this content.
  5. Be able to provide support information in context of the customers particular situation.

So who has these types of skills? With the exception of point 5, it’s user experience experts and technical writers.  Of course, if you don’t have people with those types of skills within your organisation then, as an alternative, you could look at technical communications specialists such as Cherryleaf.


Guy Stephens

Great post which highlights the way we need to look at customer support in this digital age. Although it is gradually changing, I still think that companies have a way to go to understand the contribution that help and support content has to play as a valid part of customer acquisition and retention, as well as how the various support touchpoints work individually and together.

The proliferation of social media platforms, together with the increasing ubiquity of smartphones, is exacerbating the issue and bringing with it a different set of challenges and opportunities. Information is becoming more of a commodity to be shared and RTed, as well as more transitory in nature. The skills needed to respond to these challenges are many and varied, and it is no longer simply good enough to provide a link to a ‘how to’ pdf and hope for the best.


Not sure I agree with the revised model, the 50 foot guru is normally first port of call, no?

In general though, we are already seeing this shift in my workplace. It’s a slow and hard to detect but the growing stats suggest it’s heading that way as the average age of our customers starts to fall (we get a lot of graduates into our organisation which is probably driving this).

Greg DeVore

Great post. I agree with everything up until your conclusion. Gen Y users don’t have a preference for text-based content. They have a preference for tools that primarily allow communication via text-based messages. They key isn’t to make your help content text-based. It is to make it easily shareable and discoverable via text-based communications.

I respond in more detail in this post.


You may be right, but it’s hard to have a conversation with pictures. In Europe, it’s been possible to use cellphones to send images, video even, for years yet people have stuck with text messaging. The screensteps approach may well have its place, particularly when you can call up the relevant URL via a QR/vizitag bar code. In Japan, I understand, video and communication via avatars, using the cellphone has taken off (possibly due them using katakana, kanji and hiragana to write). I guess it’s whether Generation Y are hooked on seeking conversations and a sense of belonging that can engender.

Greg DeVore

You are right about having a conversation with pictures. That is difficult and time consuming. I am not talking about creating visual content during a text-based conversation, just referencing it. Referencing the visual content, at least in our experience, makes the conversation more efficient, reduces confusion and produces better outcomes.

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