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The Woolwich is part of the Barclays Group, which now plans to extend the service to the Barclays Bank website.
Woolwich sales operations manager Lewis Hopkins said the building society has been trialling instant messaging for one year on an ad hoc basis at its contact centre in Clacton, and now it intends to increase its use by employing two dedicated agents whose sales leads will all be generated by the tool.
"Within a year it will have paid for itself by generating leads we would not have got otherwise," he said.
Hopkins said the system works best for products such as mortgages, which are quite complex and have lots of "grey areas". It has proved less effective for more straightforward offerings such as personal loans. The Woolwich is now looking to extend its use to mortgage subsidiary products such as life insurance and mortgage protection.
The system analyses visitor behaviour and creates profiles of them as they navigate the Woolwich website. It identifies users who might benefit from talking to one of its agents and initiates contact by sending them a "virtual business card". Hopkins said this approach has received a response rate of 30%.
One key issue with instant messaging is security. The problem is that instant messaging files bypass corporate e-mail systems, so viruses are not identified by firewalls or anti-virus software.
Hopkins said the Woolwich system, which is based on Netrep webchat technology from Collabor8, is not networked to any customer files or records to boost security. It uses HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol over Secure Sockets Layer) to secure transmissions and wipes data every hour.
However, users are discouraged from providing personal information via the Woolwich instant messaging system, he said.