10 tips for using instant messaging for business

By Monte Enbysk

Blame it on instant messaging. Here's the scene: A couple dozen professionals at a New York advertising agency quietly type away at computer screens congregated near each other, in an open room devoid of office walls and tall partitions.

Quietly is the key word here. An occasional laugh or chuckle punctuates the silence. But no one is talking. Why? They are communicating with one another almost exclusively through instant messaging (IM).

A technology designed initially for conducting one-on-one personal chats has permeated the workplace. Many business people are choosing text-based IM over phone calls and e-mail—preferring its immediacy and streamlined efficiency in getting real-time information from partners, suppliers, and colleagues working remotely.

Instant messaging is essentially the text version of a phone call. At businesses large and small, more and more people are using it as a communications tool. For many, it serves as a backstop for e-mail problems.

Instant messaging benefits businesses that work in teams or on projects more than it does many retailers, independent professionals and others. Why? Because IM enhances collaboration, but does not lend itself to opening new relationships. However, aside from the opportunities for time and cost savings, there are risks and downsides to its use.

Whether you're a business owner or an avid IM user, or both, here are 10 instant messaging do's and don'ts.

1. DO: Adopt a user policy for instant messaging. If you're an owner, your employees need to know whether you view instant messaging as an appropriate vehicle to communicate with, say, customers or business partners. Any policy should contain at least general guidelines for its use.

2. DON'T: Use instant messaging to communicate confidential or sensitive information. If your company is in the business of providing professional advice regarding stocks, finances, medicine, or law, chances are it's not smart to do so through instant messaging. IM is better suited to quick information about project status, meeting times, or a person's whereabouts.

3. DO: Organize your contact lists to separate business contacts from family and friends. Contact lists, also known as "buddy lists," contain your menu of potential recipients for instant messages. Keep your business contacts separate from family and friends. Make sure your employees do the same. Eliminate even the remote possibility that a social contact could be included in a business chat with a partner or customer—or vice versa.

4. DON'T: Allow excessive personal messaging at work. Yes, you make personal phone calls at work, send personal e-mails, and allow your employees to do the same. But you encourage them to keep it to a minimum and (hopefully) do the same yourself. For instant messaging, go even further. Urge that personal chats be done during breaks or the lunch hour—or that the chats generate new customers or revenue to the business.

5. DO: Be aware that instant messages can be saved. You may think IM is great because you can let your guard down, make bold statements, chastise a boss, employee, or co-worker, and have it all wiped away from the record when you are done. What you aren't realizing is that one of the parties to your conversation can copy and paste the entire chat onto a Notepad or Word document. Some IM services allow you to archive entire messages. Bottom line: Be careful what you say, just as you would in an e-mail.

6. DON'T: Compromise your company's liability, or your own reputation. Statements you make in IM about other people, your company, or other companies probably aren't going to land you in court. But they could damage your reputation or credibility, or your company's. Again, be careful what you say.

7. DO: Be aware of virus infections and related security risks. Most IM services allow you to transfer files with your messages. Alexis D. Gutzman, an author and e-business consultant, says her research for a book found that IM file attachments carrying viruses penetrate firewalls more easily than e-mail attachments. "Instant messages [carrying viruses] will run and dip into a firewall until they find an opening," she says. If you collaborate on documents for your business, file transfer is important. You'd be wise to learn more about the quality of your own firewall protection, to decide whether or not to restrict transferring files through IM.

8. DON'T: Share personal data or information through instant messaging. Even if you have the utmost trust in the person or people you are messaging, including personal information such as a password or credit card number, even a phone number you'd rather keep confidential, is not a good idea. That's because the text of your chat is relayed to a Web server en route to your contact. If an IM provider employee or even a hacker is on the connection and can see that traffic, they can see the personal information. A long shot, perhaps. But better to send such info through an encrypted e-mail, or not at all.

9. DO: Keep your instant messages simple and to the point, and know when to say goodbye. How you should use instant messaging is hard to stipulate. Some people prefer it simply for seeing if a colleague is at his or her desk, available for an in-person or telephone call. Gutzman, on the other hand, sees IM as a way to do quick research and get fast information from consultants and even lawyers. She recently used IM in researching a book, saving entire messages in her personal archives. Both agree, however, that you must limit your inquiry, get to the point right away, and avoid unnecessary blather. "With instant messaging, you don't need a lot of pleasantries," Gutzman says. "I pretty much can say, 'How's it going?' and then get on with my question."

10. DON'T: Confuse your contacts with a misleading user name or status. IM user names, like e-mail user names, should be consistent throughout your company. And users should have the courtesy to update their status throughout the day, so contacts know whether they are available for messages or offline.

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