A handful of financial services companies soon will test real-time messaging programs that would allow their representatives to communicate directly with clients over the Internet.
The trend makes use of emerging technology from software companies like Aspect Telecommunications and start-ups SiteBridge and WebLine that are concentrating on the call center business.
Strong Capital Management is the apparent leader of the pack in the real-time conversations features among financial houses. The Milwaukee-based mutual fund manager quietly introduced a prototype service last month that invites visitors to phone a representative while viewing its Web pages.
Strong Capital is working on the release of a pure, real-time chat link, officials said.
Others are believed to be close on Strong's heels. Many full-service brokerages have already established email connections with their clients that could develop into real-time screen talk.
Such instant messaging would provide investors with rapid communications, Wall Street research and other Web-based tools that they can use to buy and sell securities.
Officials from SiteBridge, a private New York-based software company, said they are in talks with brokerage Leggs Mason to incorporate their CustomerNow real-time text communication feature.
Forrester senior analyst David Cooperstein said that Putnam Investments is using similar technology to link their call center with their financial advisors, but haven't rolled out the service to the public. E Trade Group, a Web brokerage, is using technology from Toronto-based Balisoft for a chat-based concept.
"The technology is still overall a step or two away from perfect," Cooperstein said. "And, it's still at a pretty early stage in the learning curve, but customer service is the missing link on the Web right now."
Those with the patience to find the call feature on Strong's site can click to begin a voice call with Strong. Two-thirds of Strong's callers choose to talk through a second phone line. Others who have speaker and microphone attachments and who have downloaded free plug-in software from Netscape or Microsoft go directly through the Internet.
"We're really early with this, but if you look out 12 to 18 months, it's going to be pretty common to connect the call center with the Web," said Byron Vielehr, Strong's head of electronic services.
SiteBridge sees the market growing to 15,000 Web-based call centers and a $1 billion business in the year 2001, said Chris Starace, vice president for professional services. The niche now generates sales of some $10 million a year, Forrester's Cooperstein said.
Strong initiates the call from its center, which while staffed 24 hours, only responds to the Net-generated calls from 8 a.m.- 8 p.m. CST. Once the call is under way, the Strong representative and the user are both looking at the same screen. Moreover, the two can point to and underline items on the screen that nly the other can see.
"Our thinking is that we've got this great call center, and we've got a somewhat complicated product that people try to funny things with... and at some point they may have some questions," said Vielehr. "We're trying to bring them into our call centers as easily and seamlessly as possible."
Strong, a private company that manages 40 no-load mutual funds and manages nearly $32 billion, won't release much information on its Web traffic, and on its call feature in particular. Vielehr did say that traffic and new business from the Web is up 300 percent over last year.
Not everyone expects real-time chat to take off, at least not before the bandwidth crunch is resolved and brokerages and funds can video message with and send data to clients more easily.
Moreover, many clients simply prefer to use the phone. And the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission, the Securities Industries Association and other regulators are laying down guidelines on proper electronic communications between registered representatives and customers.
"The critical mass isn't there yet, but it's getting there," said Steve Clifford, senior vice president and director of interactive marketing at Salomon Smith Barney. The company's web site registers 1 million page views a day and they've registered some 120,000 clients and "guests" on their site, he said.
Written By Emily Church