A St. Louis banking company is the first user of a Internet-based program meant to help brokers sell insurance.

First Banks Inc., with $4.4 billion of assets, has been using HomeCom Communications' new InsureRate program for about three weeks. HomeCom, which is based in Atlanta, said 20 other banks will also be using it within two months.

Bryan Stilwell, program manager for FirstBanks' brokerage unit, First Brokerage America, said InsureRate provides on-line application tracking, rate checking, and compiling of commission information.

First Banks got into insurance sales in 1986, and last year it sold $18 million of insurance products, excluding variable annuities. But the old- fashioned method of compiling data was a burden, Mr. Stilwell said.

Brokers spent a lot of time mailing letters and waiting on hold for underwriters to provide up-do-date information, he said.

Still, Mr. Stilwell had resisted issuing computers to the sales force. He worried that without a centralized insurance information system there would be more headaches than improvements in efficiency.

The brokers now have laptop computers with which they can connect to InsureRate.

Valerie Jordan, a consultant, said successful transitions to a real-time system come only with adequate broker training on an appropriate system. Otherwise "you're putting dynamite in the hands of babies," said Ms. Jordan, who is president of Jordan & Jordan in Belchertown, Mass.

New real-time systems are a boon to insurance sales programs, Ms. Jordan said. "The Internet is fabulous for all of these things because you can make changes very quickly," she said.

Many bank insurance efforts do not use up-to-date systems, Ms. Jordan said. Sometimes, older managers cling to comfortable, established systems.

But those systems require that updated information be sent to individual brokers, she said. The material can be stale when received, Ms. Jordan said, or brokers may just ignore it.

Mr. Stilwell said InsureRate provides a good way to track information for compliance purposes. For instance, Securities and Exchange Commission and cash receipt logs are now e-mailed. And, brokers in far-flung posts can communicate through the site.

And in addition to increasing efficiency, he said, InsureRate will give his brokers a quick way to monitor financial events. "There's a strong need for every representative to know what's going on in the markets," Mr. Stilwell said.

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