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Fund companies upgrade websites


A few fund companies that are already providing account access and transaction capabilities on their websites are further improving their sites to make them ever more competitive with the telephone.

Two fund companies have recently revamped their sites: broker-sold Van Kampen Funds, Inc. (www.van-kampen.com) and no-load T.Rowe Price (www.troweprice.com). Technologically, both sites are advanced, offering both account access and transaction abilities. In fact, after redesign, the transaction functions have remained fundamentally the same. What has improved and what was important in the redesign is ease of use, company officials say.

"We added virtually nothing," said Emmett Higdon, Internet marketing manager with T. Rowe Price, of the redesign of the company's site. What was important was giving the site a new look and giving users the ability to find what they wanted more quickly.

Both companies said they used customer feedback, especially e-mail, as a major source of ideas for changes to their sites. Both also used outside consultants, in addition to their in-house Internet teams, to help with thier redesigns. T. Rowe Price hired Siegel & Gale, and Van Kampen worked with the Burnett Group, both of New York.

One of the biggest changes to the T. Rowe Price site is the addition of an "I Want To" section, which provides a more finely graded menu of choices of subjects covered on the site. Previously, visitors chose between just three icons designating broad categories to find information. If they chose the wrong broad category, they had to back-track. At the new site, visitors are more likely to be able to go directly to the information they seek.

"That (old format) didn't tell them a whole lot," Higdon said. The site was originally launched in January 1996, with a couple of makeovers in between. Account access was added in April 1997.

Van Kampen had not changed its site dramatically since it was created in 1996, says Steve Messinger, vice president with Van Kampen's corporate development group and head of its Internet development team.

That site got a state-of-the art look, labels were changed to correspond with the company's name change from Van Kampen American Capital to Van Kampen Funds, Inc. in August , and finding information on the site was simplified. But there were no fundamental changes. The site has both shareholder and adviser areas. Shareholders have been able to do transactions through the site since last year.

"The main focus was just improving the navigation and ease of use right now," Messinger said. "The old site -- it was very hard for someone to come in and look at it." Van Kampen plans to gradually offer new features such as an illustration of fund performance over time in the adviser area.

Although T. Rowe Price is trying to make the web a more attractive means of obtaining service, it is not trying to steer customers away from the telephone, Higdon says. Like other mutual fund companies, T. Rowe Price never expects the Internet to replace the telephone as a channel for customer service. But as its site becomes more popular, the company wants to make sure it is easy for shareholders to use. And that is why a lot of the changes were based on user feedback.

"It was virtually 100 percent driven by customer comment," Higdon said. The new site also solicits visitor comment for future changes. Easier navigation will help keep shareholders satisfied, but it can also help improve your brand, according to Andrew Zolli, a vice president at Siegal & Gale. Simplifying one's website is part of an overall effort that fund companies should undertake to "clarify their message in every medium," Zolli said.

Zolli says websites generally tend to be overdesigned and include too much "flying baloney" or confusing clutter that distracts customers from the company's message and the site's underlying purpose. It is important that people understand that the site, and the fund company, can provide them the services they need, he says.