Still offering customer service primarily via phone? Get with the times. Online banking means online customer service as well. And it goes beyond email these days. Several companies are now offering service suites with text chat, voice chat and collaboration capabilities.

This all sounds dandy, but what do the financial institutions these vendors serve think of the new bells and whistles? Well, BTN endeavored to find that out, but with few exceptions, it was like pulling teeth getting banks to talk. In general, banks are tight-lipped about their customer service methods because they feel this is a way to keep their competitive edge. So although the vendors we spoke to said they had many clients in the financial services industry, for the most part, they were simply unable to name names.

But banks know that customers will not be satisfied until they can contact their institutions by their medium of choice. It's no surprise then that vendors say that an ideal customer service solution integrates all means of communication possible-traditional phone, email, live text chat and voice over Internet Protocol.

Below are just a handful of the vendors that have jumped on the online customer service opportunities presented by financial organizations. Although each claims that no one else is doing quite what it is, some are further ahead in functionality than others.

WebTone

Creating harmony among the different communication components within companies' service centers is key to smooth operation. It's no wonder Atlanta-based WebTone Technologies Inc. initially named its customer care offering the Harmony Customer Care Suite.

Launched two years ago as a result of a joint effort by S1 Corp. and Security First Network Bank, the Customer Care Suite consists of three components designed to handle self-help and contact management requirements: WebTone Response, WebTone Guides and WebTone Gram.

"WebTone Response provides a unified view of the customers-who they are and their entire contact history," explains Jim Szyperski, the company's president and chief executive officer. Response acts as the nerve center for the suite and helps manage all customer interactions via secure chat, email, phone and fax.

There is also what the company describes as an artificial intelligence capability that can read customers' email queries in context and suggests appropriate responses for customer service representatives. It looks for responses "specific to who the person is and the type of problem he's having," says Szyperski. CSRs can also share the same Web page as customers to better address any difficulties.

WebTone Guides are designed to make life easier at both ends of the computer screen by allowing banks to provide their customers with pre- populated forms that help add more efficiency to email correspondence. WebTone Gram, which uses secure socket layer technology, is the email system through which sensitive data can be passed.

There is also a customer relationship management component to the suite. Through a partnership with Lincoln, MA-based campaign management company Unica Corp., WebTone offers its clients the ability to perform outbound sales and marketing campaigns to reach customers. "Customer care and sales and marketing are the yin and yang of CRM," Szyperski says. "They're philosophically very different. That's why we decided to bundle Unica's sales solution with the Customer Care Suite."

At press time, email and chat were the only secure Web-based communications channels offered by WebTone, although "technically we can do voice over IP," Szyperski says. However, the company felt this was not yet secure enough for its clients' needs. "With voice over IP, voice traffic is carried over routers and everyone can listen to it," he says. Expect secure VoIP from WebTone sometime this spring.

Another reason for the delay in this chat medium is the unreliable service quality of ISPs. Anticipating such problems, WebTone developed its solution to work with the more fleet-footed broadband technology as well. "It will take a couple of years to catch on with the public, but potentially, there are 24 million people in America with access to (high-speed) cable modems," Szyperski says. WebTone is in the process of building its own broadband network and signing up banks and their customers who wish to use it.

Debbie Wise, a vice president with WebTone partner Atlanta-based Security First Network Bank, has seen a marked improvement in customer service since the bank implemented the solution two years ago. "WebTone Guides has made a huge difference in the way we handle customer emails," she says. The self-help tool has facilitated the entire email assistance process for SFNB's customers and its CSRs. Wise says, "It makes skills-based routing easier for me," due to the specific data gathered on the forms.

SFNB also uses WebTone's secure email system. WebTone Gram "presents a huge advantage for us as a financial institution because we can send account information back and forth to customers securely," Wise says.

Michigan National Bank is one of the few banks willing to come forward with specific plans. In September, the $11.6 billion-asset institution integrated WebTone Gram and Guides into its S1-based Web banking applications so that customers can interact with CSRs via secure email and have online self-help options and the pre-populated forms at their fingertips.

The primary reason Michigan National became involved with WebTone was the bank's use of the S1 product, says Doug Andrews, director of Internet and direct retailing at the Farmington Hills, MI-based bank. "We found the relationship existing between S1 and WebTone was significant. So it wasn't like bringing a new provider into the mix. We examined what WebTone was offering and it was promising."

With the Customer Care Suite in place, Andrews says it was mostly a matter of taking the rough edges off its existing service methods. Michigan National has offered online banking for two years, initially with the platform from the consortium Integrion. "(Choosing WebTone) offered us the opportunity to smooth some of the processes we had in place," Andrews says. "We can turn emails around very quickly now. And that's important because that's the way the world is going. I think about mimicking the best online retailers and not chasing the best banks."

Most recently, Atlanta-based Centura Banks Inc. selected WebTone's Customer Care Suite for its CRM initiative. In January, the $11 billion-asset institution announced it would use the suite on an ASP basis. Like Michigan National, it will implement WebTone Guides, but Centura also chose WebTone Response to help manage all customer interactions via all channels.

"WebTone's solutions take us beyond the next level of customer care in the Internet service channel to help align our products and services with their needs," said Kent Miller, president and chief information officer of Centura Services, in a statement. "And with WebTone's ability to host the application, they have provided us with an attractive alternative to be up and running quickly to provide an immediate value to our customers."

ServiceWare

ServiceWare's eService Suite was launched two years ago, and like its WebTone counterpart, it attempts to offer companies a universal view of their clients' contact history and service any way they'd like.

Peggy Biddison, vice president of marketing at the Oakmont, PA- based firm, describes the product as a suite of three primary applications that contain eService Site, a customer self-service component; eService Professional, the CSR's command center that integrates phone service with Web services; and eService Architect, the administration tool used to manage and design companies' knowledge bases.

The eService Suite offers secure email and text chat through partnerships with Kana Communications Inc. and eShare Communications Inc. "Our bank customers use the suite for providing dynamic information, giving advice to customers and transmitting account balances," Biddison says. Last August, ServiceWare launched VoIP functionality through a partnership with Lipstream Networks Inc. CSRs also can see where customers are on their bank's Web site, although they cannot yet take control of customers' screens.

What makes the eService Suite stand out, says Biddison, is its patented Cognitive Processor, which helps customers help themselves on companies' sites. "The Cognitive Processor uses human thinking logic by putting two concepts together for a solution," she explains. It learns from past customers' experiences and gets "smarter" with each problem it solves. If a customer solves a problem, his solution may be added to the bank's knowledge base, pending an evaluation by the bank.

The eService Suite is just that-a service product. It does not offer an all-encompassing CRM solution. However, ServiceWare partners with numerous CRM vendors while also integrating its product with theirs, Biddison claims. Its customer base includes Charles Schwab and H&R Block.

One of ServiceWare's clients, a top 20 bank, agreed to speak with BTN on condition of anonymity. An executive at the bank says it has been using the eService Knowledge Architect since July 1999. This replaced the bank's previous database that was developed in Lotus Notes.

"ServiceWare was able to transfer all this data to the new system," the executive says. Of all the packages the bank examined, ServiceWare's was able to move data in and out of the system most easily for users, the spokesman says.

The executive is quick to add, however, that the technology is being used internally on its intranet and not for servicing customers. "We don't serve our fee-paying customers with ServiceWare," he explains. "We support the folks who do that."

The solution provides the bank with self-help functions on its technology service center intranet site where it operates as part of a larger help network. "We use the problem management system from Peregrine Systems as our core system that routes calls to the appropriate person," he says. "ServiceWare adds to this by providing the information."

The one drawback he found with the Knowledge Architect was that the search function required users to refine their query a number of times. However, he believes that the next version will solve this. Also, at press time, the bank hadn't used the email or text chat capabilities offered by ServiceWare. But the executive says that it probably will once it upgrades to version 4.0.

iSky

Columbia, MD-based iSky Inc. launched its suite of multi-channel customer care products in late 1999. Service is available via text chat, VoIP, fax, phone and email. Consumers also are aided in their online sessions by screen push that follows their total click stream, and by white boarding technology, where the CSR can "write" on the customer's screen, circling certain points for clarity. The company is in the middle of testing video assistance technology.

Additionally, there's a database module that captures customer information for future interactions and sales. "Everyone thinks of customer service as a cost center," comments Richard Hebert, president and CEO of iSky. "We view it as a profit center" by integrating a CRM element with its service product. "We'll insist clients buy this module, even if they only bought one other part of our suite."

But iSky's angle is that it offers its solution only on a service bureau basis. Hebert says that companies are often disappointed when they purchase service software solutions because they believed that "just having the CRM technology is the panacea," he says. "They need the whole methodology as well for CRM." Outsourcing their servicing needs is less costly and more efficient in terms of time and training, Hebert says.

iSky has 1,100 representatives stationed in communications centers throughout the United States and Canada. The company dedicates teams to each client, such as American Express and Fortis Inc. There is nothing to install, Hebert says, because iSky eliminates the need for companies to staff their own customer service departments.

After clients' legacy systems obtain iSky access, a help icon is installed on their Web sites. Once customers click on this, they're transferred to an iSky CSR on its own network. "This is all branded to the client's company," he says. "Consumers have no idea the rep they're speaking to works for another company. We provide clients with universal representatives that know how to communicate with their customers over every channel."

Billserv.com

When people hear the name billserv.com, they're likely to think of the EBPP service bureau. However, last July the electronic billing company launched eCare, an online customer service product that billserv says fills a gaping hole in the EBPP servicing chain. "Customer service is the missing link in the (ebilling) industry," says Jon Smith, vice president of billserv's eCare, San Antonio. "Currently the only form of service is email, which takes 24 to 48 hours for a response. That's not service."

eCare can be installed in-house or outsourced to billserv's Internet Interaction Center that provides its clients with 24x7 service to their customers. There are three versions of the product, varying in degree of complexity, from simply allowing CSRs to view electronic images of bills, to Web chat and white boarding, to sales. Each form of interaction between CSR and consumer is secured with 128-bit encryption. The third level of eCare, the CRM element, provides buying and contact history of billers' customers and is designed to assist billers' marketing efforts that Smith says are seriously lacking. While a customer waits in the billers' service chat queue for a CSR, the company can run ads on another part of the screen until the person is helped. Avista Utilties in Spokane, WA, was one of eCare's original pilot testers. Avista chose the most basic form of the service that enables its CSRs to view clients' bills and speak on the phone.

Last June, billserv received a shot in the arm from one of its biggest clients, Atlanta-based CheckFree Corp., in the form of a $10 million equity investment to assist billserv in enhancing its billing systems. Additionally, CheckFree received performance-based warrants entitling it to purchase 5 million shares of billserv common stock.

eCare will be offered only to billserv's billing clients so they may better assist their customers. However, Smith sees no reason why eCare cannot be carried over to the broader spectrum of financial services and other industries in the future.

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