Financial firms investing in Web-based customer service

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With online banking and investment trading growing apace, the financial community is taking steps to ensure that customers don't get lost in cyberspace.

At Crestar Bank, when the volume of customers' e-mail questions overwhelmed the ability of a single person to answer them quickly, the firm installed Silknet's eBusiness System server software, which scans each message for its content based on business rules. The software then routes each message to the appropriate staff specialist.

Silknet's Java-based software tracks the response to the

e-mail and gives the Crestar customer service manager a bird's-eye view into the history of these e-mail questions. Silknet can also automate simple-to-answer questions, such as which Crestar banking services are available online. And Silknet goes beyond e-mail response, letting Crestar set up for customers personalized Web pages that tailor information and services to them.

In addition, the eBusiness System features what Silknet calls its "Knowledge Manager," which lets customers access information on frequently asked questions and account history. "We haven't implemented this part yet, but our customer service does seem headed toward self-help," says Karen Davis, vice president of electronic commerce at Crestar.

Davis notes that Web customer service is crucial to meet the demands of "Generation X" customers, who appear to prefer Web banking to standing in line. And while Crestar isn't disclosing exactly how much it's spending on the customer-service effort, Silknet's software typically runs to $200,000.

Investment house Rittenhouse Financial Services, which manages $17 billion in assets for firms such as Merrill Lynch, Salomon Smith Barney and Prudential, is also taking a new approach to client interaction.

Rittenhouse traditionally held 100-person conference calls with financial consultants to discuss new portfolio options. Now Rittenhouse has installed eGain's

customer-service software so it can host a Web conference at rittenhousefinancial.com. Participants can "chat" in real time while PowerPoint slide presentations are being shown. The eGain software also lets Rittenhouse "take control" of clients' browsers to direct the clients to certain content.

"After the presentation is over, eGain packages up the entire session and e-mails it to the individuals," says Bill Crager, managing director for investment management at Rittenhouse.

Some insurance firms are using the Web to sell policies and process claims without ever making a phone call or signing any papers. Madison, N.J.-based Atlantic Mutual set up insurepoint.com as an insurance storefront to sell products to its customers, primarily software companies.

After submitting a Web form, the insurance applicant gets an e-mail confirmation automatically sent to his business, notifying him his application was received and giving him a password and ID. In the meantime, the Web application is routed to an insurance underwriter, who reviews the application and sends the applicant an e-mail telling him to click to a specific URL to review the insurance price terms. If the applicant agrees to the terms, he can answer "yes" and the insurance coverage is initiated.

"They can file claims this way or do a policy change," says Tom Winn, Atlantic Mutual's Webmaster. "They also get renewal notices through e-mail."

Winn says the insurepoint. com workflow and response process was designed

in-house based on Allaire's Cold Fusion application server.

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