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Instant messaging

Instant messagingBusiness instant messaging (IM) is a quick, effective form of communication which allows you to talk to colleagues and customers via an online chat window. You just type a message and then hit the return key to send it.

Instant messaging is a good way to get fast answers to simple queries. Instant messages are quicker than email and less likely to get lost in a bulging inbox. They're also much less intrusive than using the phone.

How business instant messaging works

Business instant messaging enables two or more people to communicate in an online chat on their computers. You type your message and hit send - moments later, the message appears on the recipient’s screen.

The simplicity and immediacy of instant messaging is very attractive. It can be useful in all sorts of situations:

  • Get a quick answer from a colleague who’s working in another part of your office or based in a different location.
  • Handle customer queries efficiently. Via instant messaging, a member of staff can answer questions from three or four customers at once.
  • Use IM statuses (available, busy, away, etc), to see who’s available. Some IM systems can change status depending on what your diary says you're doing.

Most business instant messaging takes the form of short typed messages. However, some IM systems allow you to send audio (so you can talk as if you’re on the phone), video (if you have a suitable webcam) and files to each other.

Choosing an instant messaging client

To use business instant messaging, you need a simple piece of software – called an instant messaging client – installed on your computer.

This communicates with a central server, registering your current status so that other users of the instant messaging system can see whether you’re available and send you messages.

There are two kinds of instant messaging systems:

  • Public instant messaging services are usually free and easy to sign up to. Examples include Skype and Windows Live Messenger. Your contacts can be inside or outside your business. However, their public nature makes them less customisable and secure.
  • Private instant messaging services give you a closed IM system. As messages never leave your company network, this is more secure. You also get extra flexibility to log messages centrally or show the status of users in other programs.

Private systems are best for bigger businesses with a network server – and the expertise to set everything up. You can also extend them to trusted clients or other partners.

If you’re not sure how to get started with business instant messaging, signing up to a public service is a good way to see how it works in practice. An IT expert – like your IT supplier – can also advise on the various options.

Business instant messaging is sometimes a small part of a larger system. Most commonly, collaboration tools often include an instant messaging component. For instance, a program like Skype allows you to make telephone calls through your computer or share your screen with someone else.

Many instant messaging systems can also be accessed from a mobile phone. This can be useful if you need to stay in touch when you're out and about.

Using business instant messaging

There are several things to be aware of when using business instant messaging:

  • There are security risks, especially when using public instant messaging servers. Messages can be intercepted and scammers often target IM users.
  • If employees use your instant messaging system for personal matters, it’s a good idea to set rules on acceptable use.
  • IM can be distracting when people are trying to concentrate, so allow staff to set their status to 'busy' when they need to focus.

Make sure instant messaging is covered by your IT policy, establish clear guidelines for when instant messaging isn’t a suitable way to communicate – and make sure these get communicated to all your staff.

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