Add a business to your AIM buddy list

New application from FaceTime uses AOL's popular messaging software to enhance customer service

FaceTime Communications on Wednesday will announce a feature that allows customer service representatives to chat with consumers using America Online's popular Instant Messenger service.

By clicking a link or typing in a name, consumers can add a business to the AIM buddy list. Then they can chat with a customer service rep the same way they talk to their friends.

The AIM program allows consumers to chat with customer service reps whether or not they're at the Web site, said David Hsieh, co-founder and vice president of business affairs at FaceTime.

Hsieh said that consumers will find using the AOL service, more acceptable than downloading another software program.

"We believe mass consumer adoption will happen when people (use) the same things they talk to their mother and friends with to talk to companies with," he said.

Hsieh said his company has been working with AOL to develop the back-end software, which enables a company to set up one buddy name to be used by multiple customer sales reps. He did not give financial details of the deal but said FaceTime has licensed the AIM technology from AOL.

AOL has been fiercely protective of the AIM program. Between AIM and AOL's ICQ service, AOL dominates the instant messaging market.

AOL has fought off attempts by third parties to contact its AIM users without the company's consent. But it has licenced the product to Internet service providers and others, who have developed co-branded versions of the basic messaging software.

The BizBuddy service costs $500 (£310) per month for two customer service accounts. When a consumer sends a message to the BizBuddy, the message is sent to AOL's servers, which then route it to the FaceTime server. The FaceTime server determines what business the buddy represents and then checks to see what customer service rep is available.

The software can be configured to enable reps to handle multiple conversations, Hsieh said. It also allows companies to place consumers in a queue if there are no representatives available.

Earlier this week AOL's IM service was hit by a hacking exploit. A patch was issued Wednesday .

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