10 Tips for Using Instant Messaging for Business

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Here’s the scene: A couple of dozen professionals at a big advertising agency quietly type away at computer screens near each other in an open room devoid of office walls and partitions.

An occasional laugh punctuates the silence. But no one is talking. The professionals are communicating with one another almost exclusively through instant messaging (IM).

“When visiting this firm, I can’t help but notice this [lack of people talking]. Seems odd to an outsider, but this is now pretty much their corporate culture,” says Helen Chan, an analyst for The Yankee Group, a US-based technology research group, who has friends at the agency.

A technology designed initially for one-on-one personal chats has reached the workplace. Many business people are choosing text-based Instant Messaging over phone calls and email. They prefer its immediacy and efficiency in getting real-time information from remote partners, suppliers, and colleagues.

Instant messaging is essentially the text version of a phone call. At businesses large and small, more and more people are using it to communicate. For many, it serves as a backstop for email problems and other emergencies — witnessing the spikes in usage after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The Wall Street Journal notes that more than 100 million people are now sending instant messages. In a report, “IM: The Sleeping Giant,” technology consultant Gartner Group predicts that by 2005, instant messaging will surpass email as the primary online communications tool.

That said, IM will benefit businesses that work in teams or on projects more than it will many retailers, independent professionals, and others. That’s because IM enhances collaboration but does not lend itself to opening new relationships. However, aside from the opportunities for time and cost savings, its use has risks and downsides.

Whether you’re a business owner, an avid IM user, or both, here are ten instant messaging dos and don’ts.

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1. Do adopt a user policy for instant messaging. If you’re an owner, your employees need to know whether you view instant messaging as an appropriate vehicle to communicate with customers or business partners. Any policy should contain at least general guidelines for its use. You may not think this is important — unless you know the story about the hedge fund manager who caused considerable commotion by allegedly using IM to spread inaccurate rumors about a publicly traded software company. (Word got out, the software company’s stock plunged, and the hedge fund manager and his company got into serious trouble.)

2. Don’t use instant messaging to communicate confidential or sensitive information. Take a lesson from the above example. If your company provides professional advice regarding stocks, finances, medicine, or law, it’s not intelligent to do so through instant messaging. IM is better suited to quick information about project status, meeting times, or a person’s whereabouts.

3. Organize your contact lists to separate business contacts from family and friends. Make sure your employees do the same. Eliminate the remote possibility that business contact could include the social reference in a business chat with a partner or customer — or vice versa. MSN Messenger[link] lets you organize your communications carefully.

4. Don’t allow excessive personal messaging at work. Yes, you make private phone calls at work, send personal emails, and let your employees do the same. But you encourage them to keep it to a minimum and (hopefully) do the same yourself. For instant messaging, go even further. Urge that personal chats are done during breaks or the lunch hour — or that the conversations generate new customers or revenue for the business.

5. Do be aware that your customers can save instant messages. You may think IM is great because you can let your guard down, make bold statements, chastise a boss, employee, or co-worker, and have it all wiped away from the record when you have done. You don’t realize that one of the parties to your conversation can copy and paste the entire chat onto a notepad or Word document. Some IM services allow you to archive complete messages. Be careful what you say, just like you would in an email.

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6. Don’t compromise your company’s liability or reputation. The courts may still determine where instant messages stand regarding libel, defamation, and other legal considerations. It’s likely that any statements you make about other people, your company, or other companies probably aren’t going to land you in court. But they could damage your reputation or credibility. Be careful what you say.

7. Do be aware of virus infections and related security risks. Most IM services allow you to transfer files with your messages. Alexis D. Gutzman, an author and eBusiness consultant, says her recent research for a book found that IM file attachments carrying viruses penetrate firewalls more quickly than email attachments. “Instant messages [carrying viruses] will run and dip into a firewall until they find an opening,” she says. You’d be wise to learn more about the quality of your firewall protection to decide whether or not to restrict transferring files through IM.

8. Don’t share personal data or information through IM. Even if you have the utmost trust in the person or people you are messaging, including personal information you’d rather keep confidential (like a phone number) is not a good idea. That’s because the text of your chat is relayed through a server en route to your contact. “If anyone is on the connection and can see that traffic, they can see the personal information,” says Chris Mitchell, lead program manager with MSN Messenger. Not likely, perhaps. But it’s better to send such info through an encrypted email, or not at all.

9. Keep your instant messages simple and to the point, and know when to say goodbye. How you should use IM is hard to stipulate. Kaneko Burney, director of eBusiness research at Cahners In-Stat Group, prefers it simply for seeing if a colleague is at their desk, available for an in-person or telephone call. “It’s like peeking into someone’s office.” On the other hand, Gutzman sees IM as a way to do a quick research and get fast information from consultants and even lawyers. She recently used IM in researching a book, saving entire messages in her archives. Both agree, however, that you must limit your inquiry, get to the point right away, and avoid unnecessary blather. “With instant messaging, you don’t need a lot of pleasantries,” Gutzman says. “I can say, ‘How’s it going?’ and then get on with my question.”

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10. Don’t confuse your contacts with a misleading user name or status. IM user names, like email users, should be consistent throughout your company. And users should do the courtesy of updating their position throughout the day so contacts know whether they are available for messages.

In conclusion, businesses should consider using instant messaging as a way to improve communication. It is fast, efficient, and can be used for a variety of purposes. Instant messaging can help businesses save time and money, and it can also help to build better relationships with customers and employees.  Get in touch with me kamal@kamalgood.com for more tips and marketing solution strategies that is currently working for small businesses in 2022.

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