First Union is asking to Jeeves for help in serving its online customers.

The Charlotte, N.C., company is the first bank to strike an alliance with Emeryville, Calif.-based Ask Jeeves Inc., whose Ask.com site fields questions from 14 million visitors a month on everything from planning a vacation to finding a doctor.

Starting this fall, Ask Jeeves - which gets about four million inquiries a month on banking and finance - will handle questions that come in from First Union's Web site.

The service, a co-branded offer for First Union's retail and small-business customers, will bolster the "Frequently Asked Questions" section of First Union's Web site. Because the bank's site "is not really optimized," it's "difficult to find what you are looking for," said Parrish Arturi, senior vice president of eChannels for First Union, which announced the alliance Tuesday.

Ask Jeeves was established in 1996. Its system of key-word and "natural language" searches will help First Union customers get immediate answers to such questions as "What interest rate can I get on a $100,000 loan?" Ask Jeeves also will present the Web pages most often visited by other First Union customers who ask similar questions.

Banks need a systematic way to information requests sent electronically. E-mail is proving difficult to handle: Fifty-six percent of 150 financial services companies surveyed by Celent Communications said they either did not accept e-mail inquires or did not respond to them. Twenty percent of those that responded failed to provide adequate answers.

At the Ask Jeeves site, responses for First Union will be generated from information already used by the bank to answer frequently asked questions on its own Web site, as well as from information that Ask Jeeves has aggregated from its other financial services customers such as E-Trade, Datek Online, and TD Waterhouse.

First Union will monitor queries daily so it can update the catalogue of answers provided by the Ask Jeeves technology. The goal is to give online customers the same one-to-one attention they would receive in a First Union branch, Mr. Arturi said.

First Union already answers questions sent to it by e-mail, and lets customers engage in real-time chat with service representatives during business hours.

The banking company "is trying to make a sticky site that is more interactive and will keep customers on the site longer with more interesting content," said Kimberley Collins, a senior research analyst at GartnerGroup. "The key is making sure that they are responsive and are answering the questions that the customers are asking."


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