Brokerage launches automated IM service agent

Online brokerage Harrisdirect has launched an interactive service agent that fields clients' questions in an instant messaging-like setting.

Online brokerage Harrisdirect has launched an automated service agent that interacts with its Web site visitors through an instant messaging-like interface, fielding their typed questions and providing text answers in real time.

The interactive agent, which was officially announced Monday, lets Web site visitors ask questions using natural language and is designed to provide basic information about the online brokerage's services, such as trading activities, and products, such as account types.

This type of automated agent is becoming popular for customer service and human resources support, as well as for online marketing purposes. Because they interact with users in an instant messaging-like setting, these agents are often called IM robots.

Live since the end of February, the agent has already had a noticeable effect in reducing the number of queries that Harrisdirect's customer service staffers receive via phone and e-mail, said Michael Hogan, Harrisdirect's chief operating officer.

This saves Harrisdirect money, since e-mail and phone support is more expensive to provide, and frees customer service staffers to handle more complicated queries for which the automated agent isn't suited, he said.

Harrisdirect's interactive agent was developed by Conversagent Inc., which specializes in this type of technology. The process of designing, developing, testing and deploying the agent took about three months, Hogan said. He declined to disclose the cost of creating and running the agent.

Meanwhile, the early feedback from customers has been positive, he said. "Previously we used the typical early-day Web site methods: we had some FAQs [frequently asked questions] and a site map. But those two offer static presentation of information and they really made the user work to get an answer," he said.

An experiment with a live chat system didn't meet expectations either. "We found that people who go online tend to not want to talk to a person: they just want to get the information and move on," he said. "With this new automated service agent, we have doubled the usage we had at our peak with the live chat, so it's been really well-taken to by the clients."

Currently, the agent hosts an average of 209 sessions and 589 queries per day, numbers that are expected to rise now that Harrisdirect plans to promote its use more broadly and aggressively throughout the Web site, a spokesman for Harrisdirect said.

Another benefit for Harrisdirect, which is part of Harris Bankcorp, is that the agent is hosted and maintained by Conversagent, so it puts little or no added burden on the brokerage's IT department, Hogan said.

Meanwhile, the agent keeps detailed usage statistics on, for example, the types of questions Web site visitors are asking. The brokerage's business staffers can access these usage statistics and based on them add or change the information dispensed by the agent, to fine-tune its responses and increase its success rate, Hogan said.

"We can have business people immediately and directly update information and make changes to the agent. It doesn't require intervention of IT professionals and that's a huge plus for us," Hogan said.

The Internet is ideal for providing interactive customer support, said Steve Klein, Conversagent's chief executive officer. "The Internet offers us the ability in theory to go to a Web site, ask a question and get an answer. In practice, that hasn't happened. This automated service agent makes it happen," he said.

Conversagent has built interactive agents for Comcast, Dell and Time Warner's New Line Cinema.

Visitors to can click on "customer service," which takes them to a page where they can launch the agent, which is called "Ask Harrisdirect."

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