In medium-sized businesses where most workers are equipped with a telephone on their desk, the temptation is to use that phone not only for dealing with customers, but for internal communications as well. That's probably fine, from a cost point of view, as calling from one desk to another behind the same exchange usually doesn't cost anything.
The problem lies in the fact that, in most cases, that phone can only handle one call at a time. If one of your sales people happens to be calling a helpdesk agent to arrange a meeting, for the duration of that call, any customer calling in will be unable to reach either one of them, which defeats the purpose of having the phone to begin with.
The same is true of companies that have field agents who traditionally use their cellphones to communicate with each other and the head office. The more they need to do that, the less reachable they are to customers and prospective customers.
In a previous post, I've covered the fact that sometimes a phone call is necessary. But what about when it isn't? What tool should be used for intra-office communication that leaves the phone lines open?
Email is an option, but it's often too slow and cumbersome for a quick message exchange. SMS costs too much. The logical alternative is Instant Messaging.
For the uninitiated, Instant Messaging (IM) is a tool that allows users to communicate directly with each other via a text-based interface through a computer or smartphone. The IM application will usually be able to broadcast the user's availability (as in: Logged In, Away or Busy) which can indicate whether it would be best to use IM or some other means of reaching the person.
Odds are, many of your staff are probably already using IM between themselves, but in order to ensure a certain level of standardisation, you may want to consider formalising a policy around it, and declaring an official IM tool for everyone to use.
As with most things in technology, there are a variety of IM tools to choose from, each with its own strengths and limitations. I'll look at a few of the more popular ones.
You've probably heard of Skype as the tool used by families and friends to stay in touch over long distances via video chat. But Skype is more than just a video chat application, it's also a voice and text chat tool supporting some interesting extras like ad-hoc online meeting rooms and calling out to ordinary phones.
Skype is probably the best known of the IM clients, and as a result is already pretty ubiquitous. There are Skype applications that run on all popular desktop computer operating systems, as well as most of the more popular smartphones.
The basic service is free, and the software is relatively easy to install across all your company's computers.
If your company runs its email hosting through Google Apps, you already have a Google Talk feature available to you (although it may need to be activated by your Domain Administrator).
Google Talk has all the same features as Skype with one important exception: it's not strictly necessary to install a Google Talk application on a computer in order to use it. Google Talk can work inside your Internet browser window when you log into your Google Mail page. It also interfaces with your existing Google Contacts and allows you to launch chat conversations with those contacts even from inside an email.
Like Skype, there are Google Talk applications available for most platforms (if you feel it necessary to install one), but unlike Skype, Google Talk is built on an "open" standard called Jabber/XMPP. This means that any third-party application developer may create an application that will allow you to use Google Talk through it. So for those platforms that don't already have a native application available (such as Nokia Symbian phones), there are third-party ones that work just as well (such as Fring).
If your company uses Microsoft Exchange for email, you should already have access to Microsoft Lync (or its predecessor, Microsoft Windows Messenger). It may need to be installed by your Domain Administrator.
Lync is the corporate version of the popular Windows Live Messenger (sometimes still referred to as "MSN Messenger").
Lync supports most of the same features included in Skype and Google Talk, but with one important difference. Lync can be set up to run on your own internal server. Where Skype and Google Talk both require access to the Internet to work, Lync doesn't need it. If Internet access is limited or otherwise restricted for your company, you may prefer to go with a locally hosted alternative.
The down-side of this, of course, is that your remote workers and field agents would find it more difficult to log into Lync from their smartphones or home offices.
IBM Lotus SameTime
SameTime is IBM's answer to Microsoft Lync, and works in a very similar way. If your company uses Lotus Notes for email, you probably already have access to SameTime.
Of the services listed, SameTime is probably the least supported IM service by software platform providers. Although SameTime comes built into Lotus Notes for Windows, Mac or Linux, connecting to SameTime from a smartphone can be very difficult or even impossible.
These are merely the tip of the iceberg. Other popular IM tools include AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, ICQ and Facebook Chat as well as a plethora of less popular services geared at a variety of different uses. If one of the big names mentioned above don't suit your purposes, there are plenty more to choose from.
Having tried all the ones I've listed here, my personal recommendation goes to Google Talk. I find it to have the most pleasant and consistently good user experience, and it's integration into all my other Google services makes it a pleasure to use. If I were to offer one criticism of Google Talk, it would be that there is currently no one Google Talk application that supports all the features. The desktop client supports a different array of features to the Gmail client, which is different to the web gadget and so on. Hopefully Google will release a new, comprehensive version in the near future.