Internet-based instant messaging has become a popular way to communicate, not only at home but at the office as well.

At home, our families chat with friends, relatives, classmates?and even with online, automated tutors! In the office, some of the same goes on. But the real benefit of instant messaging in businesses, including insurance agencies, lies not in the social or educational value of chats, but in the productivity boosts, cost savings and accuracy gains it can produce.

Instant messaging (IM) lets users maintain a list of people with whom they interact on their computer. At any given time, users can see who is available to receive a message and with the click of the mouse, start a real-time conversation with him or her.

Instant messaging?which is offered by major Internet service providers, as well as firms that have developed enterprise-based systems?delivers immediacy and interactivity that mirrors in-person conversations but without the need for a face-to-face meeting. It can be thought of as “e-mail on steroids,” eliminating the steps?and delay?that come with the “click, open, read, re-read, click, reply, proof, click, send, and hope for a response sometime soon” process of e-mailing back and forth.

In addition to sending individual messages, popular IM services also provide small-group chat rooms for collaboration and conference-call type conversations. They also allow sharing of links to Web sites and files?text, audio and video; provide for customized streaming of news and stock quotes; and allow for voice conversations among users whose computers are equipped with microphones.

Instant messaging has grown in popularity in the workplace. Group collaboration features have found a place in creative firms, software-development organizations and other entities that use teams to serve clients. The quick communication and instant response of IM have been popular with other industries, including stock brokerages. The ability to find and communicate with remote workers has been useful for all kinds of firms, including companies with salespeople working from home offices, publishers with a network of writers, or any firm whose laptop-equipped employees shuffle from hotel to meeting to airport to hotel.

Many uses for the instant messaging system exist in insurance agencies. Imagine being on the phone with a client who asks a question you can?t answer; instead of putting the caller on hold while you track down the answer, you make small talk with the client while sending an instant message to a co-worker, who promptly responds with the answer. Or you?re in a negotiation, perhaps on a telephone conference call with a co-worker and a prospect. You and your co-worker can communicate using instant messaging on your PC, with the other party being none the wiser.

What about dealing with business partners? The ability to converse quickly and thoroughly with underwriters, claims adjusters or company loss control repsor more than one at the same timeboosts efficiency and cuts costs and delays. I use public instant messaging software to touch base with fellow agency management system user group executive committee members. We find the service works well for quick communication, where we can?t?or don?t want to?wait a long time to get a reply back. It?s very well suited for situations that don?t require long, drawn-out, back-and-forth conversing.

Similarly, internal communication can be enhanced. The ability to click a button and ask a peer a question, while performing a task that requires that you be at your computer, cuts down on wasted time spent moving around the office. It can be as simple as clicking to see if someone is available for a brief meeting or phone call?quicker than walking around or entering into a seemingly endless game of phone tag.

Some instant-messaging software firms focus specifically on the business marketplace. These organizations bring added levels of security, increased interactivity and functionality, a clearer business focus, and even IM management services to the table. For instance, some let companies reserve screen name domains to maintain consistent business identities across e-mail and instant messaging. An employee IM identity would be, for example, tom@youragency.

They also provide other management services, including archiving. This encourages employees to use the services only for business purposes and provides documentation of any conversation with an underwriter, associate or even a customer. Such archiving or message-logging services also come as stand-alone software for agencies that might not go the enterprise route.

Agencies opting for the public, non-enterprise service can make use of security products available in the marketplace. For instance, one firm offers a program that connects users to all of the major free instant messaging clients. Built into its offering is an encryption service that delivers considerably greater security than any of those the free services offer.

While many options and considerations exist, one thing is certain: Instant messaging will continue to enjoy broader and broader use in the personal marketplace. This will drive increased interest and implementation in the business community. Deciding how to incorporate the tool into your communication mix will satisfy your employees’ desire for increased productivity. It will also boost efficiency and will cut costs?perhaps in an instant.

Stu Durland (sdurland@seely-durland.com) is vice president and co-owner of the Warwick, N.Y.-based Seely & Durland Inc., and president of Altamonte Springs, Fla.-based Applied Systems Client Network (ASCnet), the international user group of Applied Systems technology.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, September 3, 2004. Copyright 2004 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.