BOSTON - Lucent Technologies of Murray Hill, N.J., has created a new product called CentreVu that allows fund companies to integrate their websites and call centers, according to John Benchoff, an operations manager with Lucent. The system connects customers directly to call centers through a company's website. Benchoff described the technology at the NICSA Technology Forum here last week.

By clicking on a "Call Me" icon, consumers can have a telephone representative contact them through a number of means. The system saves a lot of work for the consumer - especially if he shares a line for his telephone and Internet connections.

"Call Me" messages are forwarded to call center reps just like live calls, and consumers can be contacted through telephony technology, a "chat" window, or by a call back, if the consumer has a second line. (Telephony technology allows a person to speak to another person on a phone from his computer using the telephone lines that connect him to the Internet much as he talks on the phone.)

"Call centers are going to be contact centers," said Benchoff. "You are going to have an integrated approach in your call centers."

Video communication could be added in the future, according to a March, 1999 analysis of the product by Lucent. Each of these contact methods allows the consumer and the telephone rep to view the company's website simultaneously.

The CentreVu system also makes it possible for consumers to have their e-mails answered immediately by call center reps. When a consumer e-mails the company, the message is forwarded directly to a customer service rep who will reply instantly (if he has the answer) just as he would to a telephone call.

Although fund companies are probably better than most businesses in responding to mail and e-mail, Lucent officials noted in the March analysis that e-mail does not get the attention that phone messages receive.

"Customers choosing e-mail as their preferred means of communication with a business via the Web typically wait long periods of time (several days to several weeks) before receiving responses, leading to dissatisfaction," the analysis said.

Technological advances such as CentreVu may cause consumers to expect better service from their mutual fund companies. It will enable them to use the channel of their choice to contact their fund company, be it the Internet or the telephone.

The Web will probably be used more on its own to handle account balance inquiries and other housekeeping questions, but shareholder reps will always be needed to answer tougher questions and guide consumers through their websites, executives at the NICSA conference said.

Benchoff said an integrated website and telephone system would cut down on the number of calls received by call centers but would probably increase the complexity of the calls.

An integrated system will also mean that phone reps will have to be trained to be more nimble and able to offer Internet help, according to James J. Dolan, president and chief executive officer of Access Data Corp., an information technology consulting company in Pittsburgh, Pa.

While the Internet is raising the bar in terms of what fund companies must do to service their clients, some fund companies will move to restrict who can use certain channels as a means of controlling costs, said Christopher L. Wilson, president and chief executive officer of Nvest Services Co. of Boston.

Fund companies will most likely allow only their most valued customers to use live customer reps for information that can be easily obtained on the Web or through automated voice response systems, said Wilson.

Supplying information through live telephone reps is relatively expensive. Calls to live reps cost between $4 and $5 a minute, according to Radu Pasovschi, senior vice president and general manager of the financial services business unit at RadNet, an Internet company in Wakefield, Mass. Voice response costs about 50 cents a minute and servicing on the Internet costs just a fraction of a cent per minute, he said.

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