<p>NEWTON, Mass . – In another sign of how much mere brochure-ware has become a thing of the past, major financial institutions worldwide are rapidly escalating the amount of money they're spending on sophisticated self-help Web banking applications. According to a just-released report by Meridien Research, a financial technology research service, overall spending for direct deployments of Web self-service applications among the 500 largest financial services institutions worldwide will grow from about $33.9 million in 2001 to about $99.8 million by 2004. Those self-service tools range from traditional frequently-asked-questions and search engines to knowledge bases with natural-language query front ends to artificial-intelligence dialogue and virtual agents. Besides allowing end-users (customers and members) to do more themselves and call less on human intervention, such tools offer a competitive advantage in terms of customer service, says Richard Bell, a Meridien senior analyst. "Although a large percentage of institutions already have some Internet-based self service options, very few today offer advanced facilities such as structured dialog and virtual agents," Bell says. "As a result, investment in Web self-service is a significant differentiator and potential competitive advantage on the Web today," he says.</p>

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