It's Real Time to Talk

You use email to send messages and Web pages to share information. But to swap ideas with colleagues or provide service to customers, you may need real-time chat. Let your fingers do the talking!

For years, internet pundits have been chatting about the power of real-time chat. Until recently, though, the only real power-users of the technology were teenagers obsessed with sex and celebrities, and university professors interested in debating with colleagues from around the world. Well, make way for business!

Many business chats are one-to-one: two colleagues, thousands of miles away, viewing a Web page at the same time and "discussing" it electronically. But most chats involve groups: a far-flung team of engineers, all online at the same time, typing in ideas and offering their reactions to what's being "said" over the Net.

Not even ardent chat enthusiasts expect that the technology will ever become as ubiquitous as email. But it is going mainstream. One popular chat application, made by Mirabilis Ltd., is called ICQ ("I seek you"). More than 9 million people have downloaded the software since it appeared less than two years ago. Meanwhile, blue-chip companies such as Chase Manhattan, Merrill Lynch, and IBM are experimenting with chat to connect their people - and to connect with their customers.

This edition of @Work introduces you to four companies that are using Internet chat to cut costs, improve service, enhance creativity - even generate revenue. It also offers hands-on advice from pundits and pioneers on the newest form of Netiquette - namely, chatiquette. But enough chat! It's time to let your fingers do the talking.

Log On and Touch Someone

Who's Talking?

Gregg Gallagher, 45, is in the communications business. He evaluates technologies and alliances for AT&T WorldNet Service, based in Bridgewater, New Jersey. Gallagher spends most of his time attending meetings, taking part in conference calls, surfing the Web - and communicating via real-time chat. He uses ICQ, which notifies him when other, specified users are online and lets him communicate instantly with them. "Chat is the Internet version of an intercom," he says. "You can summon a person quickly."

What's the Word?

Lots of people use real-time chat for formal, structured conversations. Gallagher prefers impromptu sessions. He uses ICQ to connect with colleagues without having to pass through the halls: "Chat saves time because I don't have to move through the building." He also uses chat to communicate one-on-one during conference calls: "It's a way to have 'out-of-band' communication while a call is taking place. People can refine their thoughts online rather than announce ideas to everyone. But this isn't just passing notes behind the teacher's back. I also use it to communicate with people on the other side of the table."

Recently, for example, Gallagher was discussing technical details during a conference call with a business partner. Engineers for the other company were reluctant to reveal a sensitive piece of information. Thanks to ICQ, Gallagher noticed that the head of the company was online. Gallagher sent a message to him - and cleared up the stumbling block. "I did it without interrupting the conversation," he says. "In a physical meeting, we might have had to leave the room."

Talking Points

Gallagher uses chat an average of 20 times a day. But even he recognizes the limits of chat technology: "There's no history, so it's not good for long-term conversations. And it works best for intimate dialogue. It's not good for many-to-many conversations."

Tech Talk

Mirabilis's technology lets users see whether people on a contact list are online, and whether they're busy or away from their desks. Users click on a name to send an instant message or to open a chat session. The ICQ client can be downloaded for free www.mirabilis.com . Mirabilis offers a more robust intranet-based system, plus versions of ICQ for popular Web-based programs, such as NetMeeting from Microsoft.

Coordinates: Gregg Gallagher, ggallagher@att.net; ICQ number: 368435

Talk to the Hand

Who's Talking?

Hand Technologies is a virtual organization. It sells hardware and software to the SOHO (small office, home office) market. Hand's staffers are mostly self-employed reps who sell face-to-face, often through new-wave Tupperware parties. The company has almost 1,300 such "technology consultants" - and just 25 employees at its headquarters in Austin, Texas. "We have to keep people well trained and well informed," says Dena Wood, 28, Hand's marketing director. "Chat has become a real business tool."

What's the Word?

Hand's first chat application was designed to speed up the process of evaluating job candidates. Prospective consultants visit an online auditorium, where executives explain Hand's business model and field questions.

The company also holds moderated chats for its consultants. Every Tuesday at 9 p.m., Hand convenes a one-hour "corporate communications" chat. Executives introduce new products and share updates on the business. They usually present for 20 minutes and field questions for 40 minutes. So many consultants have been attending the sessions that the company has had to fine-tune the agenda. "We've had to make the topics more specific," Wood says. "With so many people, chat gets unruly."

Talking Points

Hand has a leg up on most companies that are evaluating chat tools. From the beginning, its people have communicated almost exclusively over the Net. "Chat may be new and exciting," Wood says, "but it's a natural extension of how we work. Our consultants do all their business with us online." Still, the company has had to work hard to establish chat as a cornerstone of how Hand does business: "You have to tell people, 'This is how we're going to communicate. We are still going to have annual face-to-face meetings. But we are also going to use chat,' " says Wood.

Tech Talk

Hand didn't venture far to find the right software. It turned to ichat Inc., an Austin neighbor, and installed a Rooms server and Events software. "We're building a new marketing channel," Wood says. "We're a Web-based company, so we have to use Web solutions."

Coordinates: Dena Wood, marketing@handtech.com; www.handtech.com

Say It with Flowers

Who's Talking?

1-800-FLOWERS, based in Westbury, New York, is the world's largest florist. The company generates annual revenues of $300 million, including more than $30 million off the Web. Sure, it sells flowers. But its real business is giving customers exactly the flowers they want, precisely when they want them - as it did 9 million times in 1997. Which means that there's always lots to talk about.

What's the Word?

Jim McCann bought 1-800-FLOWERS in 1987, when it was on the verge of bankruptcy. It has been an innovator ever since - even though its technology has wilted at times in the face of rapid growth. Norman Dee, 50, director of network services, jokes that the company's old "store-and-forward" network (which linked 2,500 florists through dial-up modems) "was one step above a telegraph line."

That changed in January, when 1-800-FLOWERS began rolling out a Web-based system for transmitting orders and scheduling deliveries. The system, called BloomLink, incorporates real-time chat. An open area "helps florists share information on finances, store design, and marketing," says Dee. Forums explore specific business issues. And the company is about to introduce a series of online seminars devoted to topics such as running a profitable operation and providing great service - a virtual business school.

Talking Points

The company's experiences with chat underscore a simple business principle: There's no time like real time. With BloomLink, florists can ask questions about an order as soon as they receive it: Can a delivery schedule be changed? Can certain flowers be substituted for others? "Half of our orders are for same-day delivery," says Donna Iuccano, 35, director of interactive services. "We don't really have the luxury of time."

Which is why the next item on the chat agenda is customer service. The company wants to create an "online waiting room," where customers with questions will wait briefly - and then get answers in real time. "If customers have questions," says Iuccano, "they should be able to use chat to talk to someone here."

Tech Talk

BloomLink uses software from eShare Technologies Inc. www.eshare.com to provide real-time chat capabilities. The Expressions Interaction Suite supports one-to-one chat, discussion forums, and moderated chats. It starts at $3,995 (for 50 users).

Coordinates: Norman Dee, ndee@800-flowers.net; www.1800flowers.com

Money Talks

Who's Talking?

Pristine Capital Management Inc., based in White Plains, New York, is an investment-advisory firm built around a simple proposition: Time is money. Founders Oliver Velez and Greg Capra often counsel their clients to operate in three-to-five-day trading cycles. Proprietary software scours 9,000 securities every day and hunts for profitable trading opportunities. And since launching the firm in 1994, Velez and Capra have tried every possible way of interacting with customers: fax, email, toll-free numbers. Their new tool of choice is chat. "We needed a real-time medium because of the timeliness of what we do," says Velez. "We've turned chat into a revenue generator."

What's the Word?

Faster, faster. Pristine's first service was the Pristine Day Trader, an advisory newsletter for small investors and professional brokers. The newsletter, which costs $1,100 per year, gets faxed or emailed daily to more than 2,000 subscribers in 38 countries. But even satisfied customers began sending a message: A daily news feed just wasn't immediate enough. In March 1996, the firm introduced the Pristine Daily Hotline. For $225 per month, subscribers can dial a toll-free number twice a day and hear recorded messages about hot stocks and market trends. "That still wasn't enough for people," says Velez, "So we got into another medium."

Enter the Real Time Trading Room, which debuted on June 23, 1997 at a price of $525 per month. "Chat is the perfect tool for us," says Velez. "We are one of the first stock-market advisers to offer minute-by-minute guidance." The service already has more than 400 subscribers in 32 countries. Velez vows to cap the number at 500: "We're real sticklers about limiting participation. We don't want too many people rushing to make the same trades."

Talking Points

Pristine's online conversation is less than a year old, but it's already lively and informative. Velez and Capra offer frequent updates during trading hours. They post premarket commentary before the exchanges open and postmarket remarks after they close. The service receives more than 200 subscriber questions every day. Indeed, Velez insists that his firm is in the education business, not the stock-picking business. "Our customers don't just want to know what they should do," he says. "They want to know why." And chat is a powerful tool for education: "It puts hundreds of people right in our trading room. They get direct access to our ideas."

Tech Talk

Like Hand Technologies, Pristine is an ichat customer. It cost Pristine $15,000 to create the trading room, and the firm pays ichat $1,000 per month to host the chats - not bad for a service that helps generate annual revenues of nearly $5 million!

Coordinates: Oscar Velez, president@pristine.com; www.pristine.com

Heath Row hrow@fastcompany.com is an associate editor at Fast Company. He's always available for a chat.

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