How consultants can stay sane in an IM-crazed world

Some clients are addicted to IM. Consultant Ken Hardin shares his tricks for deciphering the implied sense of urgency that each communication platform carries inside a client organization.

As a neo-Luddite, I have always found instant messaging a little uncomfortable, particularly in a business context. I publicly whined about disruptive and often pointless IMs more than five years ago, and scientific surveys have confirmed that frantic multitasking, like juggling five IM threads at once, actually makes you less productive.

But as is almost always the case, spiffy technology has won out in the end.

IM seems to be the de facto communications platform for many companies, particularly for young or virtual endeavors with teams spread across the country or globe. (I can't cite any data to back up that statement; it's just been my personal experience.) And I have found this trend to be most pronounced among teams that employ IP voice tools, such as Skype. These days, I find myself IMing just to announce that I am going to send an email.

It can be, frankly, irritating.

But as a consultant, you are not in a position to dictate your client's culture -- all you can do is adapt, as best you can, while maintaining your own sanity and ensuring you meet project objectives. Aside from the basic etiquette of business IM -- always initiating a thread with a greeting as opposed to a request, and so on -- I have found these four tips helpful in keeping communication channels open without letting them get out of control.

Tip 1: Do not assume that an IM is instant.

A key element of IM, one might think, is the implicit context of "Hey, I need to communicate with you right now." Not so, at least not anymore. Folks get so many IMs these days that they let them queue up, just as they used to do with their email inboxes. I routinely get IM replies hours after sending my initial message. As a consultant, this is my major complaint with the IM glut, because now I honestly don't know how to quickly grab a client's attention, other than an unsolicited voice call, which to me will always seem presumptuous and more than a little rude. (Please, add any thoughts or suggestions you have on this topic to the comments section for this article -- I could use the help.) But at any rate, you can not assume that silence on the other end of your IM means your client is intentionally blowing you off. You just have to wait your turn.

Tip 2: Do not send attachments in IM.

This is my one line in the sand when it comes to electronic communications. I have had clients request this, and I have (politely, of course) replied that I will send it to them via email, thanks. IM systems can be set to log these kinds of transmissions, but email retains at least some sense of formality when it comes to distributing meaningful documents. And Sent email folders are much easier tools for tracking the conversation, if a bump arises.

Tip 3: Be wary about asking for a contact's IM.

This may seem counterintuitive, but I try to stick with email as long as I can. If a client wants you to communicate via IM, they will suggest it. Otherwise, IM handles are viewed as something of an inner-circle badge. I have only asked for an IM account name once, and that was after a week of emailing failed to yield a reply. I am pretty sure that my actions in that instance were considered pushy, but I simply was not going to make deadline otherwise.

Tip 4: If your client is IM-happy, encourage them to employ a group collaboration solution.

This is actually a great idea for any client that doesn't already have such a solution in place, but it's vital for businesses who rely on IM, where conversations are fragmented from the start. Several cloud-based tools, including Basecamp (which I touched on in an earlier column about cloud-based project management solutions), can be a godsend for keeping everybody in the loop. And most clients will view this suggestion as additive, not as a complaint by some consultant about their work culture, which is important.


Ken Hardin is a freelance writer and business analyst with more than two decades in technology media and product development. Before founding his own consultancy, Clarity Answers LLC, Ken was a member of the start-up team and an executive with TechRe...


Hey Ken! You mention IM etiquette. Perhaps, it would be worthy of a blog?

sissy sue
sissy sue

"Aside from the basic etiquette of business IM — always initiating a thread with a greeting as opposed to a request, and so on — I have found these four tips helpful in keeping communication channels open without letting them get out of control." Perhaps if I were receiving IMs from outside my organization, I might welcome a greeting. However, when someone within the organization IMs me, I immediately know that he/she wants application support. Rather than waste my time and theirs asking me how I am (they really don't care), I'd prefer that they just launch into the reason for their message (I know full well that they are not making a social call).


Excellent thread, couldn't agree more. Luckily few of my clients IM me but those who do I IM back. Quite a few use Skype but for clients it seems to be "one off" (e.g. like a conference call) whereas for Partners we use Skype quite frequently. (Although just because Skype SAYS they are "online" they are not necessarily, their computer may be turned on and their Skype logged in but THEY may not actually be there.) For IMPORTANT messages, believe it or not, I backup to PC and keep the log with full Date and Time, just in case of that bump on the horizon! Elsewhere, I have to admit I initiate an IM message sometimes for really time critical communications where I believe my Client is IM savy but couldn't give any rules for this, it is just a gut feeling that they will be open to such communications. This however is ONLY ever really for thins like "Hi, hope you are well. I am in town today, any chance to meet at xx pm. Cheers, Keith" or "Hi, running 30 mins late in traffic, be there soon. Hope that is ok. Cheers, Keith". ALL really critical communications (and certainly any attachments) will ONLY go by email, but yes I will also send an IM saying the email was sent if that is particularly a very time critical or urgent mail/attachments. Looking forward to more posts. Cheers :)

Deb Taylor
Deb Taylor

Ken, Ken, Thank you for taking the time to sum up the various issues that come up with IM happy clients. I agree completely with your tips and underlying premise. Here's my .05 on the unsolicited voice call conundrum: At SJN Sales, our policy is to take any incoming client IM, or email for that matter, as a request for communication. In that light, we make phone calls, reply via email, or (for me rarely) reply by IM, assuming that the client is inviting a response and that it is up to the recipient what communications method will allow us to best serve the client. For the occasional client who seems truly IM addicted, I IM that I've left a comprehensive voicemail or email so Mr. IM will know I've responded in a timely fashion, using the method I think best suits the circumstance.

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