The thing about focus groups is that sometimes you can learn things that you aren’t even studying. Fifteen or so years ago I was facilitating a focus group for a client, and while we were prepping the participants, one respondent seemed particularly eager to get started. Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore, and he loudly addressed the entire group. “I’ve been wanting to say this for a while,” he said angrily. “I used the ‘contact us’ form on this company’s website a few weeks ago, and nobody contacted me!”

He was frustrated, and he had every right to be. Now that he finally had what he thought was a direct line to the company’s management, he wanted to get some action. What he didn’t know was that back in the early days of the internet, everybody included an email form on their website but didn’t really expect anybody to use it. After all, most people still picked up their old-fashioned landline phones and called. Often, the “contact us” form forwarded messages to some weird email address that nobody in the company actively checked (because it was used so infrequently).

In the house where I spent my formative years, I distinctly remember a light switch that didn’t do anything. As a child, I recall flicking it on and off incessantly and walking around the house trying to determine what had changed. In my dreams, the lights were going on and off in a some secret subterranean spy lair under my house as operatives rolled their eyes. “Why did we even install that switch?” 007 would groan, opening a bottle of aspirin.

Now that we are all so indelibly connected via the web, I really thought those unresponsive days had passed. But in the last few months, I’ve run into two instances where I personally tried to reach an organization via their website’s “contact us” form and heard nothing but crickets. I finally had to call both of them (several times). “Oh usually we’re very good about replying to emails,” they assured me. I didn’t believe them.

In related news, one of the assignments for a college course that I teach has students analyzing how companies use social media for customer service contact. I recently graded dozens of assignments that included examples from companies big and small, some using Twitter and Facebook to engage their customers and solve problems while others used these powerful media platforms to regurgitate canned messages and generate information smoke screens.

When I assumed that bad customer service was simply one of the internet’s growing pains, I was wrong. In fact, customer service on the web is 99% about the company’s culture and only 1% about the medium. Organizations either have bad customer communication or they don’t, and the internet hasn’t really changed that.

You can put a “contact us” link on your website, but you need to decide whether you really want people to use it or not.

If you’re the kind of company that truly wants to hear from their customers, then use email and social media just like a personal conversation – answer when somebody talks to you. Ask how you can help. Offer solutions. Use it as a chance to strengthen the relationship.

On the other hand, if your business can’t be bothered with all that extra interaction, then you might as well just take “contact us” off of your website’s navigation. And while you’re at it, I suggest shutting down your social media pages, because in today’s online world people are starting to take score.

Face it – “contact us” should be a lot more than the name of a page or a form, it needs to be a request, an appeal for customers to give you real feedback that can be used to help your product and your team to improve. You shouldn’t be asking them if they need to get a hold of you, you should be begging them to do so!

And if that sounds scary to you, you need to take a long hard look at the culture in your company.