The advent of multimedia call centers is closer to reality than one might think manana technology that Jack Rodgers, president of American Finance & Investment (AFI), a Florida-based Internet residential mortgage division of First Mortgage Network, says works today and is making a major, real-time difference in attracting and keeping customers.

Scrolling together

What s made this possible is Contact, a Teleweb product from WebLine Communications that allows financial services providers to talk to customers using a call center while looking at the same piece of information on-line.

WebLine s product is a Java-based application that enables call center agents to visually interact with remote prospects or customers over the Internet using nothing more than Java-enabled browsers. Agents can share static and dynamic Web content, navigate callers around the Web, demonstrate software and interactively complete shared forms and transfer downloadable files.

The WebLine Collaboration Server supports connections between representatives, prospects and customers via Web site callback requests, callthrough requests or meet me invitations.

Using the product, the financial salesperson can work closely with a client over the telephone and the Web simultaneously, with each person able to scroll through data together. Contrast this comfort level, says Rodgers, with the usual nightmare of mortgage hunting where confused clients, often first-time homebuyers, are ordered to come back with a sheaf of documents then told, without the chance to get it right, that they did it wrong.

AFI is using Contact in its call center with 25 persons staffing telephone lines. What we want clients to do is get as smart (about the application process) as possible, Rodgers says. But financing a home is a very emotional decision. We ve handled tons more people using this system. The people who use Contact are on the cusp of their buying decision it works best for people who are ready to buy, he says so it s a fabulous productivity tool.

cut processing costs

This product is the missing link in the Web system, Rodgers adds, because the speed and ease of using the Web and telephone at once, adds the human touch for the client being able to actually talk to someone if what you re reading is unclear. Rodgers contends that obtaining a mortgage is can be confusing. Contact enables AFI to provide much better customer service and remove the barrier to selling on the Web. Mid-transaction, we can answer the question to whatever it is that would cause someone not to buy, he says.

No tech for tech sake

The product is also helping AFI to develop brand equity, for the first time in the history of the industry, adds Rodgers. You have to be at the leading edge in e-commerce. You have to be constantly out there. This is a competitive edge.

And because no bank branches are needed and clients are only routed into AFI s call center when they are ready to talk, the costs are a lot less, Rodgers says. At $25,000 for the system and $1,250 per agent cost, Contact is the least expensive part of our call center (solution), he says.

He says it s too early to tell how much Contact has increased sales, but adds that it has cut the standard $2,500 per client cost of processing a mortgage by more than half.

Mark McKenna, senior vice president and group director of new products for Putnam Investments says their firm started using Contact in the spring of 1998. It s using Contact to help what McKenna calls the empowered user, clients who have a specific question yet don t want to click through reams of data on a Web site. We wanted to find a way to immediately get to the same page, with customers expecting knowledgeable help.

McKenna says that the company is not into technology for technology s sake. Using Contact with its call center, Putnam clients can speak to a customer service representative until 9 p.m. When you get off the phone you can see that the changes to your account have been made. You have closure that the problems have been resolved.

McKenna also says it s too early to tell what a difference Contact has made as it s only being used so far to service 401(k) accounts but will be used nationally by all Putnam financial advisors by the end of 1998. Thanks to the company s imaging system, in which all client correspondence, including handwritten letters, is scanned into its database, this new system can also reference past problems or concerns, he says.

Return on investment (ROI) is less a concern to Putnam than offering the best possible customer service, McKenna adds. Our goal is never really to reduce costs, but if your service experience here is better, that might drive more sales down the road.

sales, service blurring

The makers of WebLine, a two-year-old Burlington, MA-based company, say they are now talking to an additional 10 to 12 potential clients, the biggest names you can possibly think of, says Firdaus Bathena, vice president and co-founder of the company. The lines between sales and service are becoming blurred. Often a service call becomes a sales opportunity. It s interactive e-commerce as opposed to looking at pretty pictures.

C.Kelly

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