bank may soon be face-to-face with a video camera instead of a broker. People's Bank is rolling out video conferencing equipment that will link the brokerage office in its Bridgeport headquarters to customers in 15 branches throughout the state. Michael E. Harkins, a vice president for People's Securities, a broker- dealer subsidiary, said the video technology will allow the bank to expand its investment sales presence without adding staff. "It's not cheap to set these branches up with the equipment," said Mr. Harkins. "But it cuts the cost of closing a sale in half and will more than pay for itself over the long run." Customers using the video links are ushered into a conference room where they are greeted by the image of a live broker on a large computer screen. The broker can then answer questions and map out a financial plan for the would-be investor right on the video display. People's Bank is using software developed by CDA Wiesenberger, Rockville, Md., that builds an asset allocation strategy for saving for retirement or college, then displays it on the personal computer screen. (CDA is owned by Thomson Corp., which also owns the American Banker.) A pilot program has been up and running at a People's Bank branch in Stamford, Conn., since Nov. 1. Mr. Harkins said nearly 75% of customers who have used the bank's video conferencing have scheduled follow-up appointments, and 90% of those have bought investments. "The activity in that branch, in terms of business closed, has shot up tenfold," to $250,000 per month, he said. "If we can get business up to those levels in all of our branches, it will be significant." It costs $11,000 to outfit a branch with the video conferencing equipment, and special telephone lines used in the setup cost an average of 14 cents a minute, Mr. Harkins said. People's Bank plans to have the 15 remote video units set up in bank branches by Jan. 2. An additional 45 similarly equipped offices are planned for supermarket branches the bank will open in the state in the next few months. Mr. Harkins said mortgage advice will be the next service the bank will offer through its video conferencing network, but no timetable has been set. He added, "The No. 1 question we're getting asked now is, 'When am I going to be able to do this at home?'"
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