It’s one thing to text a colleague that you’ll be late for a meeting, but would you conduct a major business deal via SMS? Ari Zoldan did.
As CEO of Quantum Media Holdings, a technology incubator based in New York City, the company builds next-generation hardware and software for 3G and 4G end users and does a lot of business in Africa, Asia, and South America.
"More often than not, our foreign partners have a hard time getting access to Internet and are unable to conduct business via email, but they all have mobile phones and can be their primary mode of communication with my company," Zoldan tells Fast Company. He admits that the medium may not necessarily be the safest, most secure way of doing business. "Sometimes it’s the only way to get things done," he contends, and it's more accepted under certain restrictive situations.
Like the time his partner in Africa only had access to a mobile phone during the final stretch of closing a deal. "We concluded the deal via text. It was signed, sealed, and delivered and, most important, it was binding," explains Zoldan, "I got a confirmation text from the bank that the funds were deposited in the bank."
No longer the exclusive domain of fleet-fingered teens and tweens, text messaging is exploding across all populations. Last year, 9.8 trillion texts were sent, according to industry group CMO Council, making texting for a mobile phone. (The first is checking the time.)
For enterprising executives like Zoldan, burgeoning cell phone use in the developing world—nearly 5 billion subscribers and three-quarters of the world with access to mobile networks—is making the technology a critical tool to communicate.
Yet while businesses are scrambling to find mobile’s sweet spot to market their goods and services to customers, texting colleagues or clients (even while poised to close a big deal) is largely uncharted territory, beyond the fact that instant connectedness dips into taboo territory on the road. Verizon, Sprint, Nextel, and T-Mobile USA joined the "It Can Wait" campaign that AT&T began in 2010 to raise awareness about the dangers of texting while driving.
Work Texting 101
Sitting at your desk or in a meeting, however, is becoming fair game —even if the phone you use is your personal mobile. "I work with a team spread out across the U.S. and Canada and often need to get in touch with people urgently when PR opportunities arise," says Grant Greenberg, communications manager at Regus, a global flexible-workspace provider.
Like most anyone working these days, Greenberg finds he and his colleagues are "flooded’" with emails every day and unless you’re hypervigilant about checking every item in the inbox, important notes could slip through the cracks. Also, he notes, people also can’t answer the phone in the middle of a meeting. That’s when Greenberg tends to text. "Especially where there are tight deadlines, a simple text message to give me a call or a reminder to check an email has been very effective," he says.
Though she texts her closest colleagues, bosses, and some administrative partners "fairly often," Donna DeChant, senior manager of Organizational Development at Ryder has her own etiquette for mobile messaging. Appropriate topics for texting include, "Are you coming to this meeting? I'm on my way. We can't find someone, is he/she with you?" DeChant observes. "We get so many long emails from so many people," DeChant adds, "When something is critical, I'll text others to say, ‘the report you need is in your email.’ That is a real time-saver."
Others, meanwhile, find it a time-suck. Melissa Korn at the Wall Street Journal recently reported that after one person received her out-of-office message, they sent a text message to her personal cell phone because they thought the matter was too urgent to wait until she returned to the office. Korn writes: "It wasn’t." but the fact that she did check the message cut into her personal time.
Indeed, a recent survey estimated that companies with more than 1,000 employees lost $10 million a year in sapped productivity from digital distractions such as texting or checking social networks and personal email.
Carson Tate, founder of Working Simply, notes that the science journal NeuroImage found managing two mental tasks at the same time significantly reduces the brain power available on either one while The Journal of Experimental Psychology found that it takes your brain four times longer to recognize and process each thing you’re working on when you switch back and forth among tasks. "Think about it," writes Tate, "If it takes you 10 minutes to get oriented to the new task every time you switch gears, and you switch gears 10 times a day. That’s one hour and 40 minutes of wasted time." What’s more, Tate says, if you have any of the sound features on, the dinging and pinging not only pulls you away from work, but it’s a distraction to others.
If you must text, Tate says it’s best to keep the message "short, sweet, and tactical" in a corporate setting. "If you can’t, there’s probably a better medium," she emphasizes. Greenberg concurs. "Text is a great touch point, but not necessarily the appropriate place to go into too much detail," he explains, "I tend to keep the texts broader and use it as an alert that we need to discuss a bigger topic. An example might be something like, ‘the local newspaper wants to come do a story on us this afternoon, please call back,’ or scheduling a time for a meeting." Tate also reminds texters that if they’re concerned about retaining the information sent in a text, they need to back it up by sending an email or other method.
Watch Your Language.
If you thought email was tone-deaf and rife with misunderstood inferences, imagine how badly things could go in less than 160 characters, says Tate. "If you are limited in space and using vernacular is already an issue, eliminate misunderstanding by being tactical. Maybe an emoticon could lighten the message? Tate says some people find smileys and winks off-putting, so unless you know your audience, refrain from scouring the emogi menu in an effort to be humorous.
Set Clear Boundaries.
Both DeChant and Greenberg report that they only text during "normal business hours"—between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. "Since texts can be considered more personal than other forms of communication, I believe it’s important to use them sparingly," Greenberg says.
Tate observes the only way to make sure your phone isn’t vibrating with urgency at 3 a.m. is to let your colleagues know when they can expect a response, right after you give them your number.
Even though she finds email overwhelming, especially when juggling several projects simultaneously, Chel Wolverton, owner of Chel Consulting, says she’s very careful to vet to whom she’ll even give her digits. "Out of all my clients, only a handful have my cell number," she asserts. "Instant message communications weren't any better because the interruptions came during times I needed to focus, not chat," she adds. Text serves as a go-between, but only because she’s kept the phone at arms length. "Where some people feel the need to answer calls or texts immediately, I've trained myself to answer them during certain times of day."
Bottom Line: Texting, when done right, is an efficient new tool for businesses to communicate.
[Image: Flickr user Djenan Kozic]