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E-mail will fall flat as credit union employees here jump to Instant Messaging (IM), according to Scott Zahnle, vice president, Information Technology at $510-million IH Mississippi Valley CU (IHMVCU).

"We think IM will replace e-mail as our main channel of communication," Zahnle said.

To give tellers a convenient way to ask managers questions, IHMVCU launched Enterprise Instant Messenger at two of its 10 branches and at its corporate headquarters last month. The tool is part of the corporate portal platform offered by West Lafayette, Ill.-based Passageways.

Tellers were in the bad habit of using the telephone to get answers to member questions, said Zahnle.

"We don't have a telephone at every teller window, so when a teller needed help with a member's question, the teller would have to leave the window, run to a phone, maybe yell across the room to check on a detail, and then run back to the window," he explained. "Essentially, the tellers were participating in a little relay whenever they needed to get more information to answer a question."

Tellers now take a less Olympian, more professional tack: They type the member's question into Instant Messenger while they chat with the member. Teller questions are automatically routed to the appropriate CU employee, who sees a pop-up window on-screen and can instantly type a response to the teller. "With IM, tellers can get a response to a question without leaving the member," Zahnle said.

IM is the answer for many IHMVCU situations. With the spontaneity of its instant pop-up windows and emoticons, IM complements the nature of employee conversations-and employees can't really ignore or delete IM, unlike e-mail.

The pop-up windows are small, stay put in the lower-right hand corner of a computer screen, and allow users to chat in conference and send files.

E-mail, on the other hand, delivers less of that feeling of conversation. It also forces users to toggle back and forth between the e-mail and their financial programs.

Though IM's main purpose is to help the teller help the member, the CU's mortgage officers could well become IM junkies, said Mary Slonecker, PC specialist at IHMVCU.

"Our mortgage department communicates a lot through e-mail, and they have to string one e-mail back and forth between three or four people" explained Slonecker. "The IM conferencing feature will help them be more efficient, because they can all communicate with each other at the same time."

Though industry pundits warn that IM is one of the weakest links in the security perimeter, Zahnle is not concerned about the Passageways product: the 120 employees using IM at IHMVCU can only chat with each other. "Instant messages are only transmitted internally, so we don't have to worry about threats coming through our firewall," he said.

That could change, Zahnle continued. "If IM is as successful internally as we think it will be, then we might consider instant messaging with our online members. However, we don't want to have our heads in the sand about all the security concerns it would cause."

IM is taking some getting used to. Employees are trying to "break the old habits" of using e-mail and the telephone, said Zahnle.

After the first few days of use, the number of IM messages doubled to about 700 per day, Slonecker said. About 10% of the CU's corporate users are now using IM instead of the telephone, she said.

For some employees, IM is a multitasking nightmare. Users can do at least three things at once-talk to members while they use financial software and chat through IM on their PCs.

In addition, "many of our employees say that they're terrible typists and spellers," explained Slonecker.

To make it easier for employees to adapt, Slonecker developed a unique IM language to make typing faster. "Instead of having to type out every word, employees are using some standard abbreviations, such as VGC for Visa Gold Card," she said. "And I tell them that spelling doesn't count."

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For info on this story:

* IH Mississippi Valley at www.ihmvcu.org

* Passageways at www.passageways.com

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