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Technology: The Great Equalizer

Chip Humphries was recently traveling through Denver International Airport when his BlackBerry started ringing. Good thing he had the mobile telephone/Internet enabled device, because an important FAX for a client needed to be sent immediately. Humphries, 35-years-old and a wealth management advisor and vice president for Merrill Lynch, typed a few entries on the unit, and within minutes the FAX was sent and the deal continued moving forward. “My BlackBerry is a lifesaver,” said Humphries. “I’m a financial advisor, asset manager and deal with commercial loans. These are people’s livelihoods, and they don’t want to wait three days to find out what’s happening with their portfolio.” Humphries, who adopted the technology about eight years ago, isn’t the only one hooked on such gadgets. Smart phones and social networking are the norm for business executives who are under 40 years old, and some in the older generation too. But most admit, with all that connectivity, you have to be careful not to blur the digital lines between work and social life. “I am BlackBerry addicted,” said Lindsay Fontaine, 25-years-old and a media buyer for Inter/Media Advertising. “When my alarm goes off in the morning, I hit snooze, grab my BlackBerry and start checking e-mails. At 6 a.m., New York is already there.” She graduated from college a few years ago, and it took a while to adopt the technology. She experimented with a Pocket PC for a while, a decision she said didn’t go so well. But once Fontaine became fully enmeshed in media buying, the BB was a must. The device’s instant messaging system is her new favorite way to communicate with colleagues. It allows two people to have a real-time conversation, and Fontaine said it’s the best way to get business answers quick. “When I need to get ahold of somebody, I’ll do anything,” she said. The BlackBerry’s Internet capabilities are also pretty handy when navigating traffic in and around Los Angeles. Digital technology is an integral part of doing business, said Timothy Gaspar, 28-years-old and owner of Gaspar Insurance Services. His office is totally paperless and most employees have their BlackBerrys connected to their desk top computers. “It’s good to be in the loop,” said Gaspar, adding he was not an early adopter of digital technology and waited until some of the kinks got worked out and it was less expensive. But now he’s hooked to his BlackBerry and laptop computer. Gaspar also recently hired an advertising agency to establish a professional presence for the firm on Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. He said social networking is best used as a passive form of marketing. “It’s a way I can keep in contact with people on a personal level,” said Gaspar. “Clients may see me on Facebook and shoot me a quick instant message…that’s what it’s for. You have to be careful not to shove insurance related issues down their throats.” When Stephanie Skrbin, 32-years-old and an associate with Lee & Associates, needs answers, she needs them “now.” She Googles everything and plugs all of her contacts, calendar and meeting notes into her BlackBerry. Her office computer is synched with the device for total access all the time. “In real estate, you’re quite often out touring sites and not able to sit at a computer,” said Skrbin, adding digital technology allows you to work more efficiently and you can even keep deals flowing while on vacation. Like Fontaine, Skrbin’s favorite tool right now is instant messaging. She doesn’t use social networking sites such as Facebook very often. And if she did use them for professional purposes, she would create a separate business site to avoid inter-mingling her social and work relationships. And Skrbin holds on to some old school beliefs about how to keep connections alive. “With relationships, it’s better to call or meet in person,” she said. The latter gets to the question of smart phone etiquette. Skrbin refrains from texting and instant messaging during one-on-one meetings. She said it’s important to remember that people have set time aside to meet with you, not your gadget. Humphries still hand writes “Thank you” letters. He turns off the BlackBerry and stashes it away during one-on-one meetings. And with the exception of Linkedin.com, social networking sites are for purely social purposes. However, he occasionally nets a business lead from socializing on the Internet. He said about a third of the Merrill Lynch advisors he knows are now packing a BlackBerry for business purposes and a separate iPhone for social networking purposes. And either may come in handy during a time of need. “If you’re in a meeting with 400 people, I’m the one in the back row on my Blackberry,” said Humphries, adding his wife is encouraging him to get an iPhone too.

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