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<p>COLUMBIA, S.C. – As more consumers move to the Web for their financial services, it’s becoming increasingly crucial that credit unions help them when they get there. Because of that, self-service tools – from the simplest FAQ’s to emerging technical wizardry such as virtual agents – are also becoming increasingly important, industry participants and observers agree. What’s at stake in this game, too, is not just who’s got the flashiest site. It’s who’s going to win and retain consumer loyalty, observes Richard Bell of Meridien Research, a Boston-area think firm and consultancy. “Institutions wishing to distinguish themselves and succeed online should adopt broad-based Web self-service initiatives,” says the Meridien senior analyst, a 30-year veteran of the financial technology arena. And that’s already happening. Web self-service (also sometimes called member-facing) tools are cited by 88% of all business as among their most important CRM initiatives, Bell says. One institution that has embraced that challenge is $1 billion Provident Credit Union. The San Francisco-area CU’s 87,000 or so members will soon have access to eFAQ, a revved-up version of the static list of frequently asked questions that many Web sites now employ. “What’s unique about our solution is that it uses a more linguistic approach,” says Robert Tembrevilla, Provident’s head of e-commerce. “Our FAQ allows the member to state the question up front in a simple, natural language and the eFAQ engine will handle the structural details that usually would be handled by a `knowledge engineer’,” Tembrevilla says. “This simplifies the way the information is queried and cuts out an unneeded resource.” It also will have a new member-facing feature: “The ability to e-mail back to Provident if the response to the inquiry did not quite answer the question,” Tembrevilla says. Besides its web site (www.providentcu.com), the Bay Area CU is using virtual agents at its San Mateo branch, allowing two tellers to serve six workstations, and an audio-response system that is incorporating speech recognition. Vendors supplied some of the solutions turnkey while others, such as eFAQ, took a bit more, Tembrevilla says. “Our interactive FAQ required some basic hardware, a server, software applications, the need to provide appropriate ports to the members over the Internet, an understanding of how to do some authoring to help maintain the content of the eFAQ database and also some understanding of HTML and XML,” he says. THE HUMAN TOUCH Regardless of the tool, the information must be kept updated, and that usually requires the human touch, even at the most tech savvy of institutions. For instance, the tech support staff at Pennsylvania State Employees Credit Union “maintains a list of questions that they use to report issues and track solutions,” says Greg Smith, CEO of the $1.6 billion, 275,000-member CU. Those questions and answers are then used to update the FAQ’s, which for PSECU is simply a list of about 30 questions grouped by subject. Questions they don’t answer go on to a human being. “If we wanted to eliminate our human tech support, we would give them more search tools. It would save money but our members might have a problem with it,” Smith says. “I frequently hear from members how much they appreciate the help our tech support provides.” As Smith has found, successful Web self-service tools also might yield something unexpected – a look at what’s not working. “When an institution finds that a Web self-service topic is being accessed frequently, that can be an indication of something amiss in its Web site or elsewhere,” says Bell at Meridien Research. Along with increasingly robust FAQ’s, interactive chat with a live person is another member-facing technology that’s gaining popularity. For instance, PM Systems Corp., a South Carolina-based Internet security and services provider to more than 300 credit unions, has a solution called TellerChat that allows staffers to interact in real time with members. Loan applications from beginning to end are another area that will benefit from member-facing technologies, using “intelligent wizards”, says Mark McCormick, a development manager at PM Systems. All that interfacing takes work, though, he says. “The difficulty here is the complication of the data-to-display process, which is a whole topic of conversation in itself,” McCormick says. “It resolves around the expediting and streamlining of data presentment from CU personnel to the display on the Web site.” While all that technology continues to evolve, one of the more fascinating, a virtual person on a screen interacting with a member, may be the last in line for now. “While virtual agents provide some intriguing possibilities, today the technology is clearly immature,” says Bell at Meridien Research. “However, we expect that as the technology matures, these systems will begin to play a more active role in Web self-service. Indeed, it may well be that creating a human-like interaction mechanism complete with a personality is one of the keys to extending the potential reach of the Web and Web service,” he says. To get there takes more than a willingness to use sophisticated tools, observes Matt Cone, senior vice president of marketing for Oregon-based financial technology vendor Corillian Corp., which serves several of the largest credit unions with its Voyager solution. “The primary hurdle that most financial institutions face today is organizational,” he says. “For a long time, the Internet channel was treated as a kind of offshoot, where some smart kid was hired to come in and set up a Web site. “But as penetration numbers started going into double digits, more and more organizations began realizing that this was a new mainstream, a true distribution channel, and started to integrate that more into their overall thinking. But that shift is a big challenge for some.” Bob Gdovic would agree. “I think the hurdles are more business than technical,” says the vice president of product marketing and new business development for Fiserv Customer Contact Solutions in Pittsburgh. “Technically, most of this stuff can be done fairly easily. It’s not like launching spaceships. The real hurdle is making sure to get the piece of technology that fits what your members are looking for,” he says. LET’S NOT GET (IM) PERSONAL Gdovic also says he sees a natural reluctance among financial institutions to automate give-and-take about potentially sensitive information and issues. “Banks and credit unions just don’t like the idea of turning over answering financial questions to machines,” the Fiserv executive says. “There’s a certain amount of impersonalness to it, and there’s also a certain amount of perceived risk by institutions over what control they might have over the information going out and its context.” Of course, that’s the idea behind developing increasingly complex and robust communication tools. But regardless of the level of sophistication of the organization or the tools it employs, the Web site tools must be easy to use, Bell stresses. “An intuitive, easy-to-use interface is critical to a successful Web self-service solution,” the Meridien Research analyst says. “The interface need not be technically sophisticated. It may be as simple as context-dependent help links to the appropriate location in a relevant,” he says. Likewise, a sophisticated Web self-service facility must have an intuitive, easy-to-use interface suitable for the average consumer. “It may be based on sophisticated natural language technology or simple and familiar Web search technology. . Whatever the technology employed, it is critical that it be easy to use,” Bell says. “A Web self-service facility that requires substantial help and experience to use effectively is almost certain to fail.” -</p> <p>[email protected]</p>

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