The financial consumer's friend

A software service is being developed that will help punters through the complex, bewildering world of personal finance. Paul Gosling reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Consumers of financial products could occupy the driving seat for the first time, as a result of new intelligent agent software being developed by Andersen Consulting. Complex financial products including insurance, savings accounts and mortgages will be compared and consumers notified which offer the best deal for price and suitability.

The new service is due to become available next year, and is the latest in a series of products developed by Andersen's research department aimed at making electronic commerce more consumer-friendly. A year ago it launched BargainFinder, which is accessed on the World Wide Web, to compare prices of CDs that can be purchased online. Since then, 400,000 people have logged on to the service. Andersen says all retailers have welcomed BargainFinder, with the exception of one major CD retailer worried that its market position will be challenged as consumers learn they can buy the same product for less elsewhere.

BargainFinder operates as a database which is constantly updated, not as a search engine exploring information already posted on the Web. Most retailers' Web sites are advertisements, and do not contain enough information for a search engine to work effectively.

Since the launch of BargainFinder, a number of similar systems have been made available on the Web by other organisations, mostly comparing prices for books and software. These include BargainBot, run by an Australian to compare book prices, and ShopBot for books and CDs, controlled from Seattle.

Several organisations have intelligent agents specifically for the travel industry, to help people book their own reservations. Users of CompuServe's online information service can use easySABRE's Bargain Finder system, which finds the cheapest fares and the best itinerary. Microsoft will launch a similar product, called Expedia, in November in the US (to be launched in January in Britain).

This will be a comprehensive package providing an information searching and online booking service, covering flights, hotels and car hire, which will post daily to a user's e-mail address the latest best offer until a reservation is booked. Microsoft, CompuServe and other online and Internet service providers are developing intelligent agent software systems that can be used for sourcing a range of products.

Last month, Andersen unveiled its latest product, LifestyleFinder, which may take electronic commerce further. The absence of a personal relationship in Cyberspace between vender and customer means that neither gets the best from the arrangement, believes Andersen. By asking users for personal details - from what type of car and home you own, to what newspaper you read - a better "lifestyle" picture can be built up. It will be possible to target customers effectively with new products.

This information is essential if intelligent agents are to be used, not just for simple products with a single standard, such as CDs or books, and move on to more flexible and complex services, particularly financial products. Consumers do not sensibly buy financial services solely on the basis of cost, but take into account a range of other products.

Information ascertained by LifestyleFinder might be used to advise which health insurance product would be appropriate for an individual given their personal health experience. Consumers should also find that important get-out clauses are drawn to their attention.

Andersen has not made a charge to consumers for its services so far, and is motivated by its desire to learn more about consumer behaviour in electronic commerce. The information is used by its consultants advising companies developing electronic shopping and banking facilities.

Bruce Krulwich, a research scientist for Andersen in Chicago, who has headed up the BargainFinder, LifestyleFinder and InfoFinder projects, said: "We want to see what use will be made of intelligent agents. It is not necessarily possible for electronic stores to compete on price but they can provide a better service."

LifestyleFinder and BargainFinder are located on Andersen Consulting's home page at http://www.ac.com

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