- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 23, 2006

A visit with bank customer-service representatives can be as close as the nearest Internet connection with the live chat sessions more financial institutions are offering consumers.

Customers can interact directly with bank employees for advice on how to apply for a loan, buy a house or shuffle their investments, just as if they were speaking face-to-face.

Online chat is the latest venture among banks to keep up with the competition by offering more services, according to industry analysts.

“An online chat is an innovative, but still efficient, way to achieve interaction with the customers,” said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst for Bankrate.com, a personal finance Web site. “It’s certainly an enhancement over the customers’ fending for themselves on a bank’s Web site.”

It’s also a change of pace for banks that tried to direct customers away from tellers to automated services, such as automated teller machines and online bill payment. Tellers — like online “chat specialists” — require paid manpower to respond to questions from customers.

Live chat has been around for at least a decade, but only with technology that was expensive and sometimes difficult to use.

“Live-chat technology in the past did not provide the right kind of customer experience or security that met Citi’s standards,” said Mark Rodgers, spokesman for Citigroup, the parent company of Citibank. “However, new, improved technology has emerged that provided the necessary quality to deploy this feature.”

Online chat is so new that some bank employees might not always be helpful in directing customers to the service.

A Citibank customer-service representative seemed unfamiliar with online chat during a recent phone call. In addition, the bank’s home page has no clear icon for “online chat” or “live chat.”

The customer-service representative placed a caller on hold, saying, “I’m not able to find that link. I’m calling up my supervisor to check on this.”

She returned to the call six minutes later saying, “It may be an option to privileged clients. I checked with my supervisor, and she didn’t find that option either.”

Nevertheless, Citigroup says online chat has been successful for customers who use it.

The cost of the service pays for itself through improved application-completion rates and customer satisfaction, Mr. Rodgers said.

“We find that a customer is four times more likely to start a home-equity [loan] application with live chat,” he said.

About 80 percent of customers who start a loan application with the assistance of online chat complete it, compared with only 50 percent who complete an online application without the chat service, he said.

Bank of America’s online chat, which opened in 2004, operates with more than 100 employees.

“In our mortgage and home-equity service online, a customer is actually speaking to an expert in that area,” said Betty Riess, Bank of America spokeswoman.

The bank’s Web site receives about 1.8 billion visitors a year. About 20 million of them regularly conduct bank transactions online.

Live chat helped increase Bank of America’s online mortgage sales by 800 percent in the first quarter of this year, compared with one year earlier.

“With online chat, the bank person who’s helping the customer can also co-browse with them and help them navigate,” Miss Riess said. “They can actually see where the customer is in the application process.”

Online customers have the option to switch to a telephone conversation with the same customer-service representative anytime they choose.

Wells Fargo & Co. was one of the first large financial institutions to offer live chat, beginning in 2002.

Customers can use the service for home-equity loan inquiries by clicking a button on the right side of its loan-application page.

“Wells Fargo has trained its customer-service agents for online chat service in addition to its other ways of responding to inquiries, such as by phone,” said Sona Chawla, Wells Fargo’s vice president of Online Sales, Service and Marketing.

SunTrust Banks also started an online chat service in 2002.

Other large institutions, such as BB&T; and Commerce Bank, rely on their call centers for customer service, but are considering starting online chats.

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