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Technology Corridor

The instant messaging wildfire spreads to the utilities industry.
Fortnightly Magazine - April 15 2003

a call. Similarly, a caller can send an instant message to a person he needs to call, asking if it's a convenient time.

Teens are infamous for having four or five IM conversations going at once. That seeming frivolity can actually work for utility companies, too, particularly in the area of customer service. Using IM as a customer support tool on a Web site costs roughly one-fifth as much as equivalent phone support, Elfenbaum says. Rather than a one-to-one model for customer service, IM enables a one-to-many model, in which representatives can talk to as many as five customers simultaneously.

IM also can be used by an employee to gather information from colleagues while on the phone with a vendor or client. For example, during a phone negotiation with a vendor, a buyer can message colleagues about past purchase trends, prices, and other vendor offers, and use that information to further the negotiations. Such use eliminates the need for multiple follow-up calls.

Businesses also can install context-sensitive IM on their Web sites, according to Elfenbaum. Context-sensitive means that if a visitor is viewing pages about hours of operation, bill payment history, and the like, the IM link will initiate a conversation with a customer service representative. But if a visitor is checking out pages on the investor relations part of the site, the IM link will initiate a conversation with the appropriate investor relations staff member.

Of course, installing IM with such bells and whistles doesn't come nearly as cheap as the free, public versions available from AOL and others. Larry Perlstein, managing vice president of Gartner, notes the wide range in cost for installing IM enterprise-wide, from $500 to $50,000. The pricing models for IM are changing rapidly, he says, as corporate interest is increasing. Perlstein pegs the cost of a basic IM enterprise installation as about the same as e-mail. The bottom line, he says, is that if companies want more control of IM, they must pay for it.

Securing Corporate Comfort With IM

Much as early use of Palm Pilots did, IM use without a corporate policy can increase productivity, but also expose the enterprise to security risks.

When security-conscious companies discover IM use inside the firewall, their first move often is to simply shut down access. Denying access, though, won't necessarily spell the end of IM use. Elfenbaum points out that often there are powerful political forces in an organization that very much want to use IM. And, he says, more technically sophisticated employees will often find ways to poke through the firewall.

"The security concerns about IM are real," Perlstein says, "but no more so than with e-mail." A company that has a strong antivirus strategy can probably handle the virus threat that comes with IM, he adds.

Perlstein says that many companies are now evaluating IM, and that he expects a fair number of those companies to adopt it in the next 12 to 18 months. He worries, though, that many companies may deploy IM for internal use only, rather than permitting external communications, too. This