Topic overview

Instant messaging

Instant messagingInstant messaging (IM) is no longer confined to social circles and youth culture. It has made its way into businesses large and small and represents one of the most effective forms of communication for customers, colleagues and teams.

With many businesses opting for services such as Slack in order to rid their offices of email, the significant uptake of instant messaging in business is in no small part due to the ease with which colleagues and customers can communicate with one another. Just type a message, hit the 'return' key, and the message is sent instantly to one or many recipients!

How business instant messaging works

Business instant messaging enables two or more people to communicate via an online chat on either their computer devices or smartphones. Delivery of messages is usually instantaneous, making it an attractive form of communication.

Instant messaging can be useful in all kinds of situations:

  • You can obtain quick answers from colleagues who work in another part of your office or who are based in different locations.
  • Customer queries can be handled efficiently. With instant messaging, support, sales and service teams can answer questions from multiple customers at once.
  • Instant messaging statuses (available, busy, away, etc), can be used to view colleague availability. Some IM systems can even change status automatically based on diary events.

Instant messages usually take the form of short, typed messages, but it is also possible to send audio, videos and share files.

Choosing an instant messaging client

In order to use IM for your business, you need a simple piece of software - usually referred to as an instant messaging client or app - installed on your device or smartphone.

There are two kinds of instant messaging systems:

  • Public instant messaging services such as Skype and WhatsApp are normally free and easy to sign up to. Your contacts can be inside or outside of your business.
  • Private instant messaging services provide a closed communication system. Messages never leave your company network and are therefore very secure. Because they are usually hosted in-house, you gain customisability and the ability to centrally log conversations.

Private systems have traditionally been the choice for larger corporations, but an increasing trend towards ultra-secure end-to-end encryption has made public IM services such as WhatsApp increasingly popular for businesses.

If you're not sure how to get started with business instant messaging, signing up to a public service is a great way to assess its effectiveness in practice. An IT expert - like your IT supplier - can also advise on the various options.

Business instant messaging can also be found as a companion feature within certain applications. It's not unusual to find chat options in everything from word processing software to project management tools, meaning the ability to connect quickly with colleagues and keep discussion uniquely tied to the project in question is always available.

Most IM clients will synchronise all chat activity between devices, so you can quickly pick up where you left off if you switch from your desktop PC to your smartphone when you leave the office.

Instant messaging as a customer service channel

Online chat is a popular medium for service teams large and small. The abundance of 'Chat now!' buttons on business websites is testament to this.

If your business includes a customer service element, there are three compelling reasons for implementing instant messaging as a service channel:

  1. Reduced service overheads. The initial implementation of online chat software is simple and low cost and the immediacy of interaction between customer and operative means the time required to service each query will rapidly reduce.
  2. Customers love it. We live in a digital world where traditional forms of communication such as telephone and email are taking a back seat. If you offer online chat, your customers will use it.
  3. Increased sales opportunities. Instant messaging isn't just for your service team - it can be used as a convenient sales channel, too. The ease with which enquiries can be made via online chat will have potential customers doing just that.

When choosing an online chat service for your business, pay attention to the service fees (most will charge per user) and consider any potential integrations you may require. For example, you may want your live chat system to link in with your CRM or telephone system.

Can Slack replace email?

Slack is an instant messaging service designed for teams. It enables businesses to create specific 'channels' for different topics and mixes group chat with the ability to send private messages to one another.

The service has long been hailed as the first real alternative to email, with many businesses having successfully made the transition to it from one of the oldest forms of digital communication.

Email is often deeply embedded within company culture, so Slack's ability to replace it will depend largely on the size of your business and its existing reliance on email. For many, Slack can be a great companion for email and often slots well into certain areas of the business where remote working is common.

Slack offers a free service tier, so the best option is to get signed up and give it a go. The ability to transfer files and collaborate with colleagues in a more modern, social media-like way may just be the perfect tonic to fight email fatigue.

Using business instant messaging

There are several things to be aware of before implementing instant messaging within your business:

  • There are inherent security risks, especially when using public IM services that don't employ end-to-end encryption like that found in WhatsApp.
  • 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 (for example, when you need a permanent written record of something) and make sure these rules get communicated to all staff.