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Should Your Business Use Instant Messaging?

Find out why small businesses are increasingly using instant messaging--and how you can avoid the pitfalls.

Once viewed primarily as a secret language used by teenagers, instant messaging (IM) is maturing into a viable communications tool for small businesses. For example, many IM services are now offering video conferencing and Voice Over IP (VoIP), in addition to messaging.

IM is gaining momentum in the workplace. According to The Second Annual Instant Messaging Trends Study, over 27 percent of IM users now communicate via instant messaging at work--a 71 percent increase over 2003.

IM is catching on because it offers many benefits for small businesses. But there are drawbacks--and some outright risks--to consider as well. Here's a look at IM's pros and cons, along with an at-a-glance view of IM services that small businesses should consider.

The Benefits

  • Save time and effort. With IM, you type a quick message, hit "send" and a few seconds later, your message pops up on the recipient's screen. Along with eliminating the lag in e-mail response time, IM cuts out the necessary "chit chat" of a phone call and often lets you avoid the tiresome game of voicemail tag. In short, IM is a superb way to quickly communicate with a colleague, partner or supplier.
  • Improve customer service. When used properly, IM in general--and the "presence awareness" feature in particular--can help you serve customers more efficiently.

Presence awareness, a common IM feature, gives you a quick view of who among your chosen correspondents is logged onto the IM service at any given time. (On AOL's Instant Messenger service, presence awareness is called "Buddy List.") You can also see what your correspondents' current status is, as well as let others know yours. For instance, before going to lunch you might choose an "Away From My Desk" option, which indicates to your IM correspondents that you're logged on but not immediately available.

In business, presence awareness is often used as a quick way to find the right person to handle an urgent matter. Example: A customer calls you with an important accounting question you can't answer, so you check to see who in the accounting department is active on the company's IM service. Then, you send an instant message to an appropriate person who's logged on to relay your customer's question. Within seconds, that person responds with the answer. You didn't waste time trying to track down someone for an answer--and most importantly, you served your customer's need right away.

  • Stay connected. Many wireless devices, including the Palm Treo 650, Research in Motion's BlackBerry, and a number of cell phones, enable you to IM wherever you can get a cell phone (or in some cases, Wi-Fi) signal . With mobile IM, you can instantly "chat" with customers and colleagues in busy airport lounges or other places where a phone conversation wouldn't be feasible.
  • Security risks. Along with everyone else, IM is growing in popularity with hackers and criminals, too. The number of IM attacks, including viruses, worms and phishing scams, has risen from 20 in 2004 to 571 in the second quarter of 2005 alone, according to a study by the IMlogic Threat Center. As with many e-mail viruses, worms and spyware, IM attacks can steal confidential information from your computer, turn your PC into a spam zombie, and more.
  • Legal risks. As with any business communications tool, you or an employee may inadvertently write something that can cause or complicate legal issues later. For example, two employees swapping crude jokes via IM could subject your business to a sexual harassment suit from an offended employee. E-mail and IM are often admitted as evidence in legal proceedings, too. And yet, most companies--even those in regulated industries--don't properly retain and archive their employee's instant messages, according to the 2004 Workplace E-Mail and Instant Messaging Survey.
  • Decreased productivity. When used improperly, IM can be an ongoing distraction for employees. In fact, 58 percent of IM users engage in personal chat at work, according to the Workplace E-Mail and Instant Messaging Survey.
  • Limited interoperability between IM systems. Most IM systems still don't enable users to swap messages with anyone outside the system. As a result, many IM users sign up for multiple services.

The Options
After weighing the pros and cons, you may want to give IM a try. Among the IM services small businesses might consider are:

  • JabberNowis an IM client for small businesses based on the open-source, extensible, XML-based Jabber platform. JabberNow promises easy installation, minimal hardware requirements, and superior interoperability with other open-source products. Some enterprises use the Jabber platform for their internal IM services, which means you can more easily IM with your corporate clients, large suppliers, and others.
  • AOL's Instant Messenger(AIM) is the most popular consumer IM service, with over 244 million users.
  • Other popular consumer services are MSN Messengerand Yahoo Messenger.Google Talk, launched in August, is based on an open protocol, with the goal of promoting interoperability among IM services.

Is IM Right for You?
Used properly, IM can be an extremely useful addition to your company's communications tools. IM reduces time and effort and helps your business react quickly to new challenges, competition and customer requests.

Before signing up for an IM service, however, ensure that you've got the necessary network and computer security in place. At a minimum, your network should have end-to-end security, firewall protection and encryption for all IM communications. You might also consider a virtual private network (VPN), which provides additional network security protection for mobile and remote employees, For more about basic network security, see "Is Your Biz Safe From Internet Security Threats?."

Also, compile a list of IM do's and don'ts for employees to follow. Keep an archive of IM messages, for legal reasons, and back it up regularly. To help you develop an IM policy for your business, read "Creating an Employee IM Policy."

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Peter Alexander is vice president of worldwide commercial marketing at Cisco Systems Inc., the leading supplier of networking equipment and network management for the internet.

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