A NEW TECHNOLOGICAL tool is being added to the armoury of banks and financial firms as they do battle to attract and retain customers who present the potential to grow their accounts and assets. Real-time communication delivered over IP (internet protocol) video is allowing banks and financial firms to link directly with customers. 'The addition of visual information delivery tools is becoming a natural extension for financial institutions that realise they already have the network and infrastructure in place to connect with their clients,' said Benny Lee Wai Kheong, former Asia-Pacific president of Tandberg, which designs and sells next-generation video-conferencing solutions. Mr Lee said video-conferencing was being used across Asia and especially on the mainland not only as a means to connect with clients but also to mitigate some of the risks that could be caused by factors such as a flu pandemic. 'In today's competitive and dynamic business environment, financial firms cannot afford any downtime. Many organisations have already put in place comprehensive measures to ensure their businesses can continue to operate in case of a crisis, and video-conferencing is increasingly becoming one of them,' Mr Lee said. Video-conferencing technology is now used by companies that want the benefits of live presentations and meetings, without the travel or cost. Until recently, video-conferencing technology had to be deployed at each of the remote locations, thereby limiting its use. Real-time communication uses web-based technologies and the client's own equipment for streaming meetings and other types of communications, both live and on demand. Through their PCs, which can also be linked to stand-alone, high-definition desktop screens and mobile phones equipped with video capabilities, clients are able to communicate with their financial service providers. It is the next best thing to face-to-face meetings. 'Face-to-face communication has long been applauded for its ability to reduce confusion and misunderstandings, while making the negotiating or discussion process easier. Customer-facing visual communication is the next best thing and offers many new dimensions by extending services and building loyalty,' Mr Lee said. Financial services clients could be linked with specialist wealth advisers who can be located anywhere in the world. Additionally, clients can access on-demand, pre-recorded presentations and seminars or join live specialist investment groups for interactive seminars. Recently, former United States president Bill Clinton used the Tandberg system to deliver a presentation to an audience of high-level bankers and financiers in Hong Kong. 'Real-time Advisor lets banks make expert talent available, effectively distribute knowledge, enliven customer interactions and sharply reduce technology and human resources costs,' Mr Lee said. Personal video communication is ideally suited for meeting the needs of affluent clients who demand and expect a high level of personalised service. For instance, hedge fund managers could talk with individual investors to inform them about changes in market conditions and investment strategies. 'By using visual communication, opinions are transmitted more effectively and questions are answered more efficiently,' he said. For tight security, the system uses stringent encryption and firewall features. Mr Lee said video communication provided one of the most cost-effective sales and service tools for delivering knowledge to customers about complex products. For example, the system allowed financial providers to tap a much larger pool of experts and certified financial advisers to service and advise customers on complex investment issues. The challenge for financial services firms is to provide the product expertise and advisory capabilities. Mr Lee said as banks invested in their branches to improve sales, customer satisfaction and loyalty, the system could be installed in branch offices and ATM centres where customers could access pre-recorded information or communicate in real time with experts to receive specific information. 'This way banks and financial solutions providers could facilitate deeper customer interactions with more clarity, precision and speed,' Mr Lee said. Internally, banks and financial institutions could link branch offices and deliver visual presentations by senior management. In Taiwan, wealth management executives from various branch offices of the International Commercial Bank of China report to the management team in Taipei headquarters each morning through video-conferencing. This allows managers in different locations to meet visually to discuss time critical topics and management directives.