The first time Illinois Realtor Tammy Powell heard from a particular client was via an instant message that popped onto her computer screen. Intrigued by one of Powell’s listings, the woman sent Powell an instant message after finding her screen name on her Web site.

The two continued to use instant message, or IM for short, throughout the home buying process. When it came time to negotiate a deal for the house, Powell and the woman communicated almost entirely through IM.

“It’s a quicker way to contact someone,” said Powell, who works with Coldwell Banker Honig-Bell in Romeoville, Ill. “It’s much more efficient.”

IM is one way of chatting online. It enables people to electronically send short text messages to other people in real time. The technology has actually been around for more than a decade, though it is just now catching on in the real estate industry and other fields.

Ask any teenager, however, and they’ll know right away what you’re talking about. Many also might say they can’t live without IM. A 2001 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 74 percent of teens use IM. That compares with only 44 percent of adults during that time.

Since then, adults who use IM have realized it’s potential as a powerful business tool. And real estate agents like Powell who’ve already implemented IM into their business understand how it can enhance communication with clients.

IM enables Powell to quickly and effectively talk with clients without the chit-chat distractions that can happen during a phone conversation. It’s also quicker than e-mail, she said, since an IM session is done in real time, and offers instantaneous answers without delay in waiting for an e-mail response. Plus, if you receive an IM from someone, the program will demand your attention by flashing on your computer screen until you read the message.

Users also can set up their IM programs to block people from interrupting them when they’re busy or let people know they’ve stepped away from their computers. IM programs can be set up on cell phones and other wireless devices, and their small screens are part of the reason abbreviations and shorthand are so common in IM messages.

AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! and Microsoft are the most widely used IM programs. All are free, which makes IM an even more attractive business tool.

Realtor Bob Stuke believes IM’s ability to send files is a big reason to use it in the real estate field. He still prefers that phone when it comes time for negotiations, but he likes using IM to send clients closing documents that need their signatures. Sometimes he sends clients links to Web sites so they can chat about the sites in real time.

And when he or a client is out of town, IM becomes a great way to stay in touch. Stuke works out of North Palm Beach, Fla., for Stuke & Associates.

Despite having his IM screen name on his Web site, Stuke has yet to have any new clients contact him that way.

Powell has had much the same experience. Other than the woman who contacted her two years ago on IM, Powell hasn’t used IM much in her dealings with clients. She too has her IM information on her Web site.

The reason for the lack of interest, she believes, is simple.

“You see a lot of kids using it and so you have a lot of adults who think, ‘Oh, it’s a kid toy,'” Powell said.

Overall, she said, too few people in the real estate field take advantage of technologies such as IM because clients don’t demand it. But that will change as the IM-ing kids of today become agents’ clients tomorrow.

“It’s going to be more of ‘You do it, or these people are not going to deal with you,'” Powell said. “The younger the buyers get, the more people will need it.”


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