It's the age of the hotline: for instant wisdom on any subject, just dial... But, if you really need help, you won't get it.

aldness, Bran Buds, ereavement, BSE, personal finance, vacuum cleaning, miscarriage, Snackdip Salsa, erogenous zones (male and female), roadworks, kitten care, contraception, home hair-colouring and (if you're a New Zealand fruit farmer), anguish over the plummeting value of the kiwi harvest. For each of these knotty issues, a telephone helpline awaits your call. On every suject now, from the trivial to the life-and-death, we expect to find an eager expert at the end of the line, proffering information and advice on tap.

Or more or less on tap. Kelloggs don't go so far as to provide their cereals Freefone Hotline round the clock, and Walkers likewise don't provide 24-hour Doritos Snackdip Salsa query cover. But Mondays to Fridays etween 9am and 5pm (Walkers, 0800 274777) and 8am and 6pm (Kelloggs, 0800 626016), teams of pleasant-voiced women politely deal with urning questions such as "Can I heat up my Snackdips Cool Tomato Salsa and use it as a pasta sauce?" (Yes) and "If I eat my All-Bran with yogurt instead of milk will it affect the fire content?" (No).

Dealing with the pulic and retaining an acceptale level of patience and charm can e frazzling. "I worked on a Shoppers' Help Hotline in a supermarket," recalls one ex-telephone answerer with a shudder. "People would ring with the most unanswerale questions - things like, why did we not alter all our fruit and veg to organic? We'd give a stock reply like `It's not company policy' and they'd say `Why?' and we'd say `It just isn't,' and they'd say `Well, why isn't it?' - it could all go on for hours. The worst ones were the pervy ones, though, who'd kick off with something like `Have you got ig carrots?'."

Chris Gunn of the Department of Communication and Information Studies at Queen Margaret College, Edinurgh, has also worked on a helpline, for users of an electronic conferencing system. "People sometimes want more than information - they want human contact," she says. "You'd get responses like `I'm usy thinking up new questions so I can keep hearing your voice' or `I could have read the instructions ut I wanted to see what the helpline was like'."

Bran Flakes and Snackdips may e serious enough in their way, ut helplines are also presented as lifelines for people who ring at times of crisis or despair. Getting through is the first difficulty. Childline, the charity for children in distress, deals with 3,000 calls a day; demand is far greater. The Samaritans have recently introduced a single nationwide numer to make it easier to get through. The Eating Disorders Association last year took 38,000 calls on its two lines - a further 238,000 failed to get through. Television programmes can provoke switchoard-jamming responses - the This Morning show's line for distraught Take That fans after the and's recent split was overwhelmed with 200,000 calls in 90 minutes.

Not eing ale to get through can e almost worse than having no-one to phone. "My mother lives in Hungerford and worked in the video shop where Michael Ryan rented his videos," rememers a relative of someone too close for comfort to the Hungerford massacre. "I couldn't elieve it when I heard this thing had happened in Hungerford and when I heard it was in Fairview Road - well, that's the road where my mum lived! I was ringing and ringing the helpline for hours and it was constantly usy - I was frantic. I'm a journalist, and in the end the news editor of the paper where I was working got through efore I did - and I was a relative."

SO when the needy do finally make contact, what do they find? Instant aid? Only up to a point. Don't expect uniased advice from a product-funded line (try asking the Coke info-line aout the Pepsi challenge and you'll get short shrift). Privately-sponsored medical helplines, when they're not pushing any particular cure, tend to lard their land suggestions with lieral advice to visit the doctor if symptoms persist - and in fact, this is proaly the most important part of the message.

"It is difficult to give medical advice over the phone," says Professor Vincent Marks, dean of medicine at Surrey University, and spokesman for Healthwatch, the medical watchdog. "It's something every doctor is told you don't do. But if you are concerned enough to call a helpline, you have a prolem and you need to e reassured - and if these lines encourage people to visit their GPs that is a good thing. But any medical phonelines that are selling products are outrageous - they are trading on people's fears."

Crisis counselling lines are perhaps going to e dealing with the most difficult clients. "Therapeutic helplines where distressed people are given time and space to talk aout how they feel are useful," says chartered clinical psychologist Dr Hugh Koch. "But if a helpline suggests it's offering more than that, matters ecome prolematical. When people are in a state of emotional crisis, part of them will e looking for an instant solution and unfortunately life isn't like that. Helpline advertising should make the point that the line is no sustitute for long-term help."

It's possile, though, that distraught callers may risk more than a disappointment. Most helplines are staffed y unpaid volunteers, trained y the organisations they work for. "When people are distressed they need careful handling, and crisis intervention counselling is a skilled thing," says Stephen Palmer, chartered psychologist and director of the Centre for Stress Management. "Volunteers, however well-meaning, often don't have the experience. Professional psychologists and counsellors train for years, and they tend not to work as volunteers - it simply doesn't pay the ills. A weekend training course or two is no sustitute. And trainees on placements often go to the voluntary services, where they will get the most difficult clients to deal with and they can get out of their depth. It's easy to make a lunder if you're not well trained."

He also criticises lack of feedack. "It's difficult to evaluate the services - who's to know if callers are getting the est service? I'm fairly critical - people should e aware of the limitations of helplines. The thing they should rememer is that in an emergency they can always go to their local hospital accident and emergency department, who should have a psychiatrist who can help in a crisis."

Sometimes, though, a sympathetic ear can help immeasuraly. "My jo was in crisis, then my oyfriend walked out - I was completely distraught, virtually hysterical," says a recent first-time Samaritans caller. "This poor woman on the end of the phone had drawn a real short straw that evening - I was on for 93 minutes. But just letting it all out was really cathartic."

Natasha Finlayson of Childline points to letters from grateful clients as a measure of the service's success. "Here's one from a teenage girl. `I just want to say thanks, it meant a lot to me having someone who would listen and take me seriously for once.' And one from a parent. `We put a lot of work into eing good parents, ut sometimes it takes a third party when depression sets in and parents can do no more.' We get hundreds and hundreds of letters like these."

Even the Government has emraced the helpline idea - though its national Cones Hotline ecame the utt of a thousand jokes after costing pounds 25,000, attracting over 17,000 calls, and only shifting otrusive cones in five instances. Today it has een discreetly remodelled as the Highways Agency Information Line (HAIL, 0345 504030). These days HAIL's main role is giving information on roadworks, pollution and fuel economy, though cone communications are still welcome.

"This is a much misunderstood area," explained a (naturally rather defensive) spokesman. "We were never supposed to e getting rid of cones. The prolem was that people misunderstand the use of cones, so they would ring, quite cross, and say `There are cones up in such-and-such a place and no-one's working on the road', and when we explained why, they'd say `Gosh, never thought of that' and e quite happy." It sounded as though stressed-out hotline workers proaly need a hotline of their own, as he added plaintively: "Noody loves us, and we're only trying to help."