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The New Open-Door Policy

Instant messaging is a great tool for staying in touch with customers. Here’s how to balance IM openness with productivity.

Not too long ago, the employees of ath Power Consulting, a business-consulting firm based in Andover, Mass., were expecting an important phone call from a potential client. While the customer representative talked on the phone, each employee was able to contribute to the discussion by listening in on the phone conversation via conference call and communicating with one another through instant messages. While the rep and the client talked, the other employees were able to discuss the questions raised by the potential client and send responses to their representative speaking on the phone, all via instant message.

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The concept of instant messaging (IM) has become commonplace in many social settings, but it has been slower to catch on in business. However, IM is increasingly popping up in a number of businesses and has positioned itself as one of the newest must-haves in communication for today’s business world. Businesses find IM helpful in communicating with their clients and customers, either through direct interaction or through collaborative efforts, such as the telephone meeting at ath Power Consulting. Because it is instant, written, and accessible, and it has opportunities for personal flair, IM provides many benefits for client communication.

According to Nate Root, an analyst at Forrester Research, 20% to 30% of American companies have official policies regarding IM. Countless more businesses, knowingly or not, have employees who use IM as an essential tool for maintaining contact with clients and co-workers. What’s the advantage to using IM as a customer relationship tool?

  • IM is nearly live, in-person. IM has an advantage over the telephone and email because it allows for determining someone’s presence, a situation that can give customers the feeling that they can get in touch whenever they need to. Because users can display their chatting availability, IM allows for immediate communication. This feature eliminates the principle ambiguities associated with voicemail and email, which often go unchecked. “IM takes away second guessing the availability of the user,” notes Jon Sakoda, founder and Chief Technology Officer of IMLogic, a company that provides management and protection services for corporate IM users.
  • IM combines real-time and written communication. This provides for the instant exchange of well-formed thoughts, as well as the ability to archive these exchanges, just as one would manage client emails. This is a vast improvement to “real” conversations, which afterward can become battles of “he said, she said.” This is particularly useful for companies like ATI, a California-based long-distance telecommunications service re-seller and provider. ATI’s independent, off-site sales representatives use IM to relay questions from potential clients to those at the home base. “IM allows our employees to be more efficient and better multi-task,” says ATI CEO David Singer. “Our sales representatives can talk to potential clients on the phone and simultaneously instant message with us at headquarters.”
  • IM is cost-effective. Most of the businesses on IM use free, public providers, such as AOL, Yahoo!, and MSN. While some choose to buy additional management and protection software, IM can still save money, cutting down on long-distance phone calls and travel.
  • IM can be personal or professional, or both. Businesses are able to make their IM use as professional or personal as they desire. By including a photo of his child on his IM template, Singer is able to relate personally to his clients. “IM is a fun way to express yourself,” he says. “It adds some personal character and personality.” In contrast, businesses can also opt to increase professionalism by instating standard usernames and message templates.

For all of IM’s potential to bring you closer to your customers, the strategy can hit some snags if not carefully planned out. Here are some areas to focus on to avoid any potential pitfalls when using IM as a customer relationship tool:

  • Security. IM creates increased risk that intellectual property and confidential files could leak out into the public. To protect your business and your clients, it is vital to confirm the identity of your conversation partner before sharing important information, even when chatting under password-protected usernames.
  • Etiquette. By its nature, IM may appear to lack the professionalism desired in client interactions. It is therefore important to have company guidelines on IM etiquette. There is also IM software, which allows managers to block out certain words from IM conversation. This is helpful in maintaining professional etiquette, as well as company policies. For example, the word “guarantee” can be blocked out, to prevent employees or sales representatives from making false claims.
  • Productivity. Some argue that IM inhibits productivity because it can be intrusive and interrupt employees’ workflows. However, Root downplays this argument because of IM’s features, which allow one to display if they are available, away, or busy. Because of this ability to display one’s availability, the use of IM can be managed so as to not cut in on workers’ productivity.

Before officially incorporating IM into their customer relationship strategies, CEOs should weigh the benefits and disadvantages to IM in regard to their specific business. “Have a measurable objective and know why you want to start using IM,” advises Singer. By determining a plan for how IM will improve customer relations, CEOs can incorporate a plan that best suits their needs.

“Set up the house rules,” adds ath Power Consulting President Frank Aloi. A policy regarding conversation archiving should be instated and made known to all users in the network. A policy regarding buddy lists can also be helpful; at ath Power Consulting, for example, access to outside IM users is blocked out, keeping its IM network completely internal. Because of this indirect application, the company is able to have more effective telephone conferences and meetings with them through employee collaboration on IM.

IM can be a very effective tool for customer relationships in today’s global, dynamic economy. Its accessibility and management options, such as conversation archiving and availability display, make it a very simple way to communicate with clients. Plus, IM’s adaptability makes it ideal for businesses that want to show personal character and a real relationship with their customers.

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