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...

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