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Get the Message – instant voice messaging

Get the Message – instant voice messaging – Internet/Web/Online Service Information

Charles Pappas

Instant messaging can bring you closer to your employees and customers

WHEN DR. JERRY MINSKY, A COMPUTER SCIENTIST-TURNED-DENTAL surgeon in Cerritos, Calif., wants to send a message to someone, he launches a rocket–a RocketTalk instant message, that is. Blasting off last February, the free service (714-449-8702, www.rockettalk.com) allows subscribers to send high-quality voice messages to other RocketTalk users. And for Minsky, it’s a business tool that contradicts the strictly-for-socializing image that instant messaging (IM) has acquired from America Online-addicted teens.

“I deal with patients who are mentally retarded and have significant medical problems [that] must be treated in a hospital operating room,” Minsky explains. “I need to communicate frequently with physicians to determine the risks and develop a safe treatment approach. RocketTalk allows us to communicate by inflection and intonation in addition to written records. That way I can also gauge the level of concern over a patient.”

Medicine isn’t the only field where users are finding business benefits in the live, real-time exchange of ideas made possible by instant messaging. AOL, which estimates that more than 750 million messages are sent daily using its Instant Messenger (aim.aol.com) and ICQ (www.icq.com) services, has licensed its IM network to FaceTime Communications of Foster City, Calif. FaceTime will fuse AOL’s Instant Messenger software with its own customer service tool for e-businesses.

According to a survey conducted by NUA Internet Surveys, even though online sales are booming–31 percent of U.S. Internet users now regularly buy products online–the average browser becomes a buyer less than 3 percent of the time. A separate study from NUA found that one-quarter of those who experienced problems buying online also had trouble getting in touch with customer service departments through e-mail. E-merchants hope that adding IM will raise their level of customer service, which in turn will raise their traffic.

FaceTime and similar services offer advantages that non-IM customer service can’t. Besides slashing response times, they can handle several clients at once, and send stored messages, files, and Web pages that have been created to answer specific customer service queries.

Although FaceTime’s products for high-end businesses currently run $1,500 a month and above, small and home-based firms can take advantage of numerous powerful and affordable, or even free, IM programs, such as Excite@Home’s PAL (talk.excite.com/communities/ excite/pal), Yahoo’s Instant Messenger (messenger.yahoo.com), and PowWow (www.powwow.com). Another popular portal, Infoseek, has said it will offer a new IM tool by year’s end, though the company wouldn’t confirm details at press time.

Most IM clients come in PC and Mac versions and work with most browsers. Once set up, they run in the background while you work online.

Everybody’s Talkin’ In addition to helping your business enhance customer service, IM tools can also coordinate virtual offices and increase communication. For example, Dan Phillips, owner of Dansan Business Services in Garland, Tex., uses RocketTalk to stay in touch with a phalanx of 18 programmers located as far away as California and Virginia: “It’s quicker than e-mail, cheaper than the phone, and the software lets me know the instant anyone signs on to the Web that they’re available.”

Phillips also uses ICQ, perhaps the best-known IM program (with more than 40 million registered users). You can incorporate ICQ into your Web site, after which you, your employees, and your customers can send files (or entire directory folders) to one another, or chat using either the usual typed text, voice, or video-voice connection.

Realtor Dennis Lewis of Brandon, Fla., lists both AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ addresses on his Web site so potential customers can reach him immediately. He estimates that instant messaging “adds about 25 percent more response from the site than [an] ordinary e-mail [address].” That’s vital in a field where the race is usually won by being the quickest to respond to a customer’s needs. “It’s the possibility of an instant response [that] creates so much opportunity,” Lewis says.

If you do integrate IM into your site, be sure that you don’t pile on the palaver, warns Jim Sterne, president of Target Marketing in Santa Barbara, Calif., and author of three Internet marketing books. “IM tools are best used for specific questions between you and coworkers, or quick queries from customers,” Sterne says. “They should complement e-mail, for example. But handling 10,000 [instant messages] isn’t going to help your business.”

It’s not going to help your business to use IM as a high-pressure sales tool, either. Customers don’t like being spammed with instant messages any more than they like being spammed with unsolicited e-mail.

Security is an issue as well–how, for instance, can customers know that the person taking their credit card number is legit? While upscale programs like FaceTime are difficult to fake (or “spoof,” in online jargon), consumer IM software is more easily fooled: In 1998, one security expert developed a program that could let anyone hijack any ICQ account and assume that user’s identity. That security hole has since been fixed, but if you use instant messages for your business, safeguards and warnings that are visible and verifiable to all customers should be present.

Making wise use of IM, however, may leave your coworkers and customers so satisfied they’ll be speechless.

COPYRIGHT 1999 CURTCO Freedom Communications

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group