COLUMBIA, S.C. – People sometimes get their best ideas while shopping. Just ask Carol Brown, who happened upon the inspiration for the newest tool in her credit union’s member-service lineup while doing a bit of online shopping. “We’re all Web surfers around here,” says the vice president of member and lending services at American Airlines Federal Credit Union. “I was looking for a gift for someone online and all of a sudden found this thing. I got the answer I needed right away, and realized what a wonderful member service this would be.” This thing was online chat, and AAFCU become one of the early adopters of the technology, now offering it during regular business hours to users of its Web site at The $3 billion, 200,000-member credit union is based at American Airline headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, but its members, who can find themselves in far-flung corners of the country and the world, can get answers to all their questions simply by logging on. And log on they have. Since the service was launched in June 2000, volume has reached 1,500 chats a month and continues to grow, says Pedro Noda, AAFCU’s Web master. Live chat is not a chat room, but a one-on-one conversation between a member-service representative and a user. Generally, it’s operated by the same staffers handling e-mail and phone calls. Members appreciate the live online service for a number of reasons, Noda says. For one, dial-up modem users don’t have to hang up to phone into a call center if they want to communicate with a live person. And the higher tiers of the service offer the same level of encrypted security as online banking. It also affords privacy. “People working in cubicle environments find it much more private than talking to our call center on the phone,” Noda notes. Live chat also allows electronic communications with a personal touch. While there are a series of menu-accessed, formatted responses available to answer typical questions, “we encourage our customer-service staff to let their personalities show through, including using emoticons,” Noda says. (Those are the punctuation-created expressions such as ;-).) Working with a live person AAFCU’s vendor is New York-based LivePerson (, an application-service provider (ASP) whose clients pay from around $40 a month to $350 per operator, depending on the level of service. (The company’s offerings also include a dynamic FAQ system, kind of a high-powered automatic self-service database, for those who want to provide the service but not the people.) “We’ve got 2,200 to 2,300 paying customers, ranging from a one-person account in Brazil to QVC, the big online retailer,” says Tony Pante, LivePerson’s senior vice president of product marketing. Six of those clients are credit unions. “The common theme is online interaction. I’d say about 60% of our clients are using it for customer service. The rest are split about equally between sales and technical support,” Pante says. Learning to use the service is relatively easy, Pante says. “In the process of buying the product and downloading it, you’re actually getting trained on it,” he says. “The training also is offered simply through documentation.” Credit unions using live chat say they have found it economical and efficient, placing little demand on their own sometimes hard-pressed technical staff. “It’s fairly simple for IS. We have one person who works very part-time on this,” says Barbara Whitney, Internet manager for ESL Federal Credit Union, the $1.7 billion, 170,000-member credit union for Kodak employees and their families based in Rochester, N.Y. ESL’s live chat is provided by Atlanta-based eshare communications (the product itself is called NetAgent) and costs the credit union a couple thousand dollars a month. For that, it gets seven seats and the ability to successfully handle nearly a thousand live chats a month, Whitney says. The service is browser-based. ESL stays connected with eshare’s servers in New Jersey through a T1 line. AAFCU, meanwhile, uses its intranet (hosted by the Sabre airline ticketing service) to stay in touch with LivePerson. A fit for all sizes The service has found favor with some smaller credit unions, too. For instance, LivePerson client Envision Credit Union in Tallahassee, Fla., pays about $90 a month for its service, which is not encrypted (so member transactions can’t occur over it) but is still useful for a wide range of member requests. “We answer questions like, `How do I access my online account,’ and what are the latest mortgage and savings rates. Really, a whole range of things,” says Leslie Hantman, e-systems coordinator for the $145 million, 35,000-member organization, a community credit union serving Leon, Franklin, Gadsden and Wakulla counties in Florida’s panhandle. “It’s rare, maybe once a week, that someone asks something we can’t do through the live chat. We also couldn’t do it over the phone. We just haven’t had a huge demand for secure-site service,” she says. While the chat service adds another way to serve members, it doesn’t necessarily reduce call-center volume, although Pante at LivePerson says e-mail reductions have been reported, since what would take several e-mails can be done in one chat. “Our live chat continues to grow but our phone center is still always running at extremely high levels,” says Noda at AAFCU. “What live chat gives us is an additional way for our members to contact our support centers.” That credit union’s live chat also includes an operator working in Spanish. At ESL, where the chat service is offered weekdays from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., the service will be a key part of the new customer-relationship management (CRM) system now being planned, says Whitney, the credit union’s Internet manager. Its reporting ability (chats can easily be stored and referenced) will be combined with e-mail records, along with call-center use, actual branch visits and other transactions, in the new system. All three credit unions say the chat service adds flexibility and efficiency. For instance, more than one chat can be conducted at a time, and some vendors offer the option of routing member requests to e-mail when live chat is unavailable. And, just as importantly, they say, offering it is a good way to meet the expectations of increasingly Internet-savvy members. “It’s just so quick and easy. We wanted to give every techie, and non-techie, person the convenience of everything we can offer, and this is a good way to do that,” says Hantman at Envision CU. She says her credit union also is ramping up its technology offerings in other ways, with Internet banking in place and e-statements, online loan approval and an intranet on the way. “It’s just a huge, growing opportunity, and something eventually everyone will have to have,” Whitney at ESL says of the live-chat technology. “It’s going to be an expectation of members, who will want to know why they can get that at other sites but not at yours. “Our members love it and really rave about the service,” she added. -

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