After months of buildup, Brightware Inc. said its Internet "sales server" is ready for action.
At least one bank, Wells Fargo, is preparing to use the system to deal with the rising volume of customer inquiries related to its home banking program.
Other banks and financial service companies are likely to follow suit, given that Brightware has been doing 80% of its business with financial organizations ranging from the new (Security First Network Bank) to the established (American Express Co.), said senior vice president of marketing Michael P. Thoma.
Brightware 1.0, as the newly released software is known, is designed to automate customer service over the World Wide Web. As an "inbound marketing agent," it responds to on-line inquiries and can refer them to bankers as would a telephone call center representative.
Brightware Inc., a two-year-old company in Novato, Calif., said its system fills a void in Web commerce because it can "turn hits into qualified leads" and hence actual sales.
"Brightware 1.0 seems like an easy application to add to a Web site," said Nicole Vanderbilt, a digital commerce group analyst at Jupiter Communications, "and something that would help companies realize the cost- saving potential that many tout when speaking of running a business on the Web."
A true "sales agent," capable of providing real-time sales assistance through Web sites, is to come in Brightware 2.0, currently in development.
These concepts and their advance hype have made privately held Brightware, with 130 employees and venture capital backing from the likes of Norwest Corp., Venrock, and J.P. Morgan & Co., one of Northern California's hot start-ups with an international reach and reputation.
It reported $13 million of revenue in the fiscal year ended June 30. It publicly laid out the strategy that led to Brightware 1.0 in January.
Brightware's more than 200 corporate customers have been concentrated in the financial, high-technology, and telecommunications fields, typically using Brightware development tools to improve dealings with customers or otherwise "solve real-world problems," the company said.
Brightware-enabled programs at Chase Manhattan Bank, Equifax Check Services, Fannie Mae, and MetLife, among others, have won awards at the annual Innovative Applications of Artificial Intelligence conferences.
Fannie Mae, which won this year for its Desktop Underwriter expert mortgage underwriting system, is an early endorser of Brightware 1.0.
"It provides an effective way to handle requests from customers, using more innovative and efficient marketing tools," said Fannie Mae senior vice president Mike Williams.
"As our volumes grow with Desktop Underwriter and more and more of our customers use our Web site as a consistent source of round-the-clock information," he said, "we look forward to working with Brightware to help us meet our growing needs for innovation and development."
Also in the mortgages area, American Finance and Investment Inc. of Washington in April became a Brightware development partner, as had Amway Corp., Security First Technologies, and Swiss Bank Corp. American Finance has incorporated 1.0 in its Cybersmart Instant Mortgage Web site to "identify important leads buried in our incoming mail," said president Jack Rodgers.
Wells Fargo Bank, which has about 200,000 people banking via its Web site and a nearly equal number connecting their personal computers via dial-up phone lines, "expects a lot of growth in E-mails as on-line banking grows," said spokeswoman Lorna Doubet. Brightware 1.0 will help "handle them more consistently and completely."
Wells vice president Regina Wallace said the product promises to "bring our customers quicker and more accurate responses to on-line requests while at the same time cutting our business operation costs."
On-line customers "expect banks to offer the means to ask questions on- line and a reasonable likelihood that their questions will be answered correctly in a timely fashion," James "Chuck" Williams, president and chief executive officer of Brightware, said Monday at the unveiling of 1.0.
"We believe Wells Fargo and its customers will benefit significantly" from the software, he said, and from "its capability to automatically fulfill electronic requests and turn hits into qualified leads, low-cost sales, and satisfied customers."
Mr. Thoma, the marketing executive, said Brightware is focused on the elusive goal of making the Internet "the world's best sales channel."
The company differentiates its "sales server," he said, from Internet commerce servers like those from IBM, Microsoft Corp., or Open Market Inc. Those would handle the transaction processing and logistics of sales that might be handed off from Brightware 1.0.
Also, Mr. Thoma said, Brightware's customer-response function enters into the sales chain after initial marketing contacts might be made via Web browsers, on-line malls, catalogues, or intelligent agent systems like Firefly.
"Brightware 1.0 adds a 'sales rep' that carries on a dialogue and answers questions," Mr. Thoma said in an interview. "Our target market is companies that rely on sales or advisory people, not companies selling apples and oranges."
The system is smart enough to recognize and discard irrelevant E-mails such as advertising "spams," to respond quickly to routine product information and pricing requests, and to refer complicated messages or likely sales leads to appropriate human agents.
"If you can get customers to ask questions, you can sell products," Mr. Thoma said. "It's said that people are only a question or two away from making a deal."
Brightware is stressing speed to market and low cost. Mr. Thoma cited "Transaction Site Sticker Shock," a recent report by Forrester Research Inc. analyst Karen Epper, which put the cost of a high-end financial services Web site with full accessibility to customer information files at $23 million.
Mr. Thoma said most retail banks are daunted by such numbers and are generally in an expense-control mode. Brightware addresses these concerns while opening the door to sales opportunities.
"Spending a few hundred thousand dollars now can save millions over a number of years," Mr. Thoma said.
Brightware 1.0 sells for $95,000 a year, or double that for a perpetual license. The annual price falls under the $100,000 threshold that creates budgeting complications at some corporations.