It used to be shops, banks or high street brands had their own specific customer service desk or dedicated department staffed by humans – often these were marked out by queues of people armed with exchanges, returns and questions.
However, with our spending habits moving from bricks and mortar outlets to online stores or services, the way we ask for - and receive - help has changed out of all recognition.
Face-to-face chats initially gave way to phoning huge call centres for answers, but even that method is fast being replaced by internet-based FAQs, online forms and live typed-out text chats we can have with advisors in real time.
The next phase is the rise of "chatbots" and "robo-advisors", each programmed with different automated responses to the thousands of possible questions a consumer might ask.
Many are so lifelike you might not even know you're speaking to one; they could give you their ‘name’ at the start and reply just like a real person would sound. The artificial intelligence used means they are often faster and far more convenient.
It is no wonder then that in its 2018 State of Chatbots Report, conversational marketing platform Drift found 15% of people had communicated with a chatbot in the past year.
In one of the report's takeaways it stated: "It's clear that consumers see chatbots as being able to provide that real-time, on-demand experience that they’ve been craving."
Many high street names and online brands have invested millions of pounds in AI and automation to make these clever digital assistants as useful as possible.
Benefits include 24-hour availability, quick and accurate responses to a wider range simple questions and the chance to get in touch from a mobile device.
The Drift research agreed as it found 64% of people asked saw 24-hour service as the top potential positive with 55% flagging up an instant response.
Chatbots can be used for all sorts of online interactions too, from helping people save spare money and make investments to giving them a way to find out about the weather or for creating unique experiences that augment their enjoyment of favourite TV shows.
Such futuristic technology is not only the preserve of a younger, always-on generation either. According to Drift, when it compared responses from those aged 18-34 and those 55+, the latter age group was 24% more likely to expect benefits from chatbots in five of the nine categories it looked at. The report said: "Chatbots aren’t just for Millennials. This a technology that has the potential to improve online experiences for all consumers, regardless of age."
Even back in late 2016, research from Pingup in the US showed 37% of millennials questioned preferred to communicate with a business via messaging or chatbot, with more than a quarter (26%) of all those who answered thinking the same. Then Mark Slater, CEO at Pingup, said: "Consumers want ease and convenience in local transactions and bots living on messaging platforms can provide a remarkably frictionless experience."
Chatbots could also become one way for companies to keep the loyalty of their customers as, for example, research from digital experience experts Acquia found three quarters (76%) of consumers admitted they would switch to a competitor if they had just one bad experience with a brand they like.
Research from Gartner suggests that by 2020, a quarter of customer service and support operations will be using these virtual assistants meaning consumers will need to get used to the technology and start to understand it.
Gene Alvarez, managing vice president at Gartner, said: "A great Virtual Customer Assistant offers more than just information. It should enrich the customer experience, help the customer throughout the interaction and process transactions on behalf of the customer."
The next stage will see people communicate with them more via social media, whether over Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp or speaking to them through the likes of Amazon's Alexa voice-assistant.
Chatbots will only get more intelligent too, becoming even more lifelike thanks to neuro-linguistic programming. This learns how the human mind works and ultimately helps them to interpret questions more effectively and have deeper conversations with customers.
Raj Badarinath, from RichRelevance, a company that works to personalise online experiences for consumers, said: "Opportunities for NLP technology to improve the customer service journey are everywhere and retailers will soon recognise this as an integral way to set themselves apart, addressing issues in a much targeted way when they do occur, making for a pleasant and efficient shopping experience."