chat-emoticon.jpgIt’s doubtful Jarkko "WiZ" Oikarinen intended to provide the 2011 business world with a fast, cost effective, real-time communication tool when he developed the first Internet Relay Chat (IRC) server in 1988.  But chat has rapidly emerged as a highly effective means of communicating with prospects and customers and is increasingly being used by businesses of all sizes around the world. Traditionally, chat has been a popular means of communicating with personal acquaintances or coworkers, but over the past several years it’s been adopted by businesses as an effective business communication tool.  Today you’ll find businesses using chat to do everything from communicate with prospects, customers, partners and vendors;  answer product questions; quote and close new business; and provide remote technical chat support.  Chat is enabling companies across diverse industries to conduct real-time business while significantly reducing costs, improving operational efficiency and increasing revenue and customer satisfaction.

While chat has evolved into a real-time business communication tool, the evolution of chat etiquette seems to be lagging a bit.  Informal peer-to-peer chat that includes slang, jargon, abbreviations, improper grammar, humor, emoticons and even profanity has become not only accepted but expected.  However, allowing this informal communication style to spill over into your business communication is not the best choice.  Why? Some prospects and customers, especially international customers, still find this style of communication inappropriate in today’s global business environment.   The majority of the developed world still values proper verbal and written communication as a hallmark of intelligence and professionalism.   We are all still graded on how well we communicate.  Even through chat, the words you use and the manner in which you use them greatly influences prospects’ and customers’ overall impression of both you and your company.

My Google search on “Business Chat Etiquette” served up a number of articles and slides that provide a consistent set of business chat protocols, most of which sound like good advice your Momma would have provided when you were in grade school.  The following is a summary of practical business chat etiquette which should be reviewed before you hit SEND on your next business chat session.

-Be polite. When you chat with a customer or a prospect, you’re acting as an agent of your company.  Whether you like it or not, the customer will form an opinion about you and your company based on your behavior, attitude, tone and ability to communicate. In fact, 80 percent of what your customers will remember about your company is based on your behavior and attitude. So, do what your Momma told you, and always be polite, professional and courteous.  This can be accomplished by using polite phrases such as:
-Good morning or afternoon
-How can I help you?
-Thank you for your patience
-I’ll get right back to you
-I’m happy to help you
-I’ll take care of that immediately
-Is there anything else I can do for you today?

After writing, proofreading and sending your well-written message, pause and allow the recipient of the message enough time to read and comprehend it.  Sending back-to-back messages or “machine gun” messaging will likely annoy your customers and prospects.

-Be positive. Your attitude toward the reader and the subject of your chat message is referred to as your tone, which is present in all of your communications. The tone of your chat will affect how the reader perceives your message.  Using the appropriate tone in business is an important aspect of communicating your desired message and of achieving your desired results.  So, keep your tone positive. It’s easier to understand, easier to remember and helps build better relationships.
-Get to the point. Keep your messages short and relevant.  Don’t try to cram too much information or too many questions into a single chat message. This will only lead to frustration, confusion and miscommunication.  Try to limit your chat message to one topic or question at a time.  Complete one discussion topic before proceeding to the next.
-Use proper grammar.  Believe it or not, proper grammar and correct spelling do matter when chatting for business purposes. In the global world of business chat, you will not be judged by where you live, your nationality, weight, hair color, clothing or the car you drive.  However, you and your company will be judged on the quality of your writing.  Spelling and grammar are as important in chat as they are in any other type of professional business communication.
-Skip the emoticons and CAPS. While the use of fanciful and colorful fonts, emoticons and animation in personal chat has become widely accepted, it may cause your customer to form an unprofessional opinion of you and your company.  So, save it for personal chats. Be careful with your font size, color and selection. Stick to a 10 or 12 point conservative font like Arial or Times New Roman.  Also, TYPING YOUR MESSAGE IN UPPERCASE gives the impression you are shouting and should be avoided…even if you do want to shout.
-Pay attention. One of the many benefits of using chat as a customer support or sales tool is the ability to serve multiple customers simultaneously.  This is a both a blessing and a curse because it can cause representatives to become distracted, which can be frustrating for a customer waiting for a response.  Letting your customer know you’re listening and paying attention can be accomplished by using phrases such as “I’m listening”, “I hear you”, “please proceed” or words such as “okay”, “alright”, 'sure, 'great', 'absolutely', etc. to let them know that you're engaged.  Lastly, don’t make a customer repeat a chat message. This will clearly give the impression that you’re not being attentive.
-Don’t try to be funny.  Today's vast global business environment continues to expand across various geographic regions and span numerous cultures. Unfortunately, humor is often culture-specific.  Something you find hilarious could be viewed as offensive by another. Hold back the humor unless you’ve established a good relationship with your customer.
-Use jargon, acronyms and slang with caution.  Using abbreviations, jargon and acronyms can reduce chat keystrokes and save time, but also cause confusion and a breakdown of the communication process if your customer is not familiar with the lingo.  The use of slang can also be viewed as unprofessional by the person with whom you are communicating. It’s best to play it safe and avoid using these shortcuts during business chats.
-Don’t criticize the competition. Trashing the competition via any communication channel, including chat, is a proven and tested method of turning off a prospect or customer and should be avoided. Sharing the great benefits of your product or solution is far better than any critique you can write about the competition.
-Pause and proofread before hitting SEND.  Don’t let your desire to respond quickly prevent you from proofreading.  Pause and take a minute to thoroughly proof your message to ensure it is grammatically correct, free of spelling errors, and professional in tone.  This will prevent you from feeling totally lame when you or your boss reviews a chat transcript and find misspelled words, grammatical errors and slang.

Real-time business chat can be a great way to quickly and directly communicate with prospects, customers, partners and vendors to answer product questions, quote and close new business, provide remote technical support and build customer relationships.  To make sure this convenient tool helps rather than hinders your business, take the time to master some basic chat etiquette. Your Momma will be proud.

B in a circle

Gary Brooks