Twenty years ago it was push-button dialing. Now it’s “push pages.” AT&T Corp. is at it again. As Webmasters hone their servers to provide more specialized information for narrower groups of users, AT&T is pushing World Wide Web pages through cyberspace with the numbers on a telephone keypad.

Consumers Car Club is beta testing a new service from AT&T that melds Car Club’s Web site with AT&T calling services. The pilot, known as Project iA (for instant answers), is taking a unique step in increasing interaction with customers surfing for new cars on the Web.

Consumers Car Club, which acts as an intermediary between 1,600 car dealers and customers who don’t want to haggle to get the best price, is the first customer of the AT&T service, which the telecommunications giant plans to roll out commercially early next year.

Project iA allows a customer service representative to provide information to a client by “pushing” pages over the Internet while the two are engaged in a phone call. Push pages are designed to save time for call center personnel and their customers by quickly conveying information on sales and service issues.

“Push pages are a tool to explain things that might be confusing,” said Michael London, CEO of San Francisco-based Car Club.

A customer perusing Car Club’s Web site can type in his or her phone number and click a “call me now” icon. That triggers a robot “voice” to tell a customer service representative which page the customer is viewing.

The representative is then immediately connected to the customer via phone. To illustrate particulars, the representative can dial a single digit and the pound sign to instantly zap information to the customer’s screen.

London doesn’t really care what makes the service work because none of the equipment is on his premises.

“AT&T has the whole black box,” he said. “Everything resides with AT&T.”

The service, for which AT&T has yet to set pricing, does not require any special software or equipment for either the call center or the customer, London said. It is compatible with Web sites developed on popular server platforms, such as those from Sun Microsystems Inc. and Silicon Graphics Inc., and standard phone systems. And customers can use standard Internet browsers.

“One of the main ingredients for me [in deciding to go with AT&T] is the absence of barriers to entry,” said James Carolan, vice president of operations at Car Club.

So far, Car Club is using only seven push pages on the portion of the site that offers financing and leasing information, but more are on the way.

“We will begin offering information on auto insurance in December and would like to take that to iA as well,” Carolan said. “You can go into the hundreds of pages.”

By tallying the number of links to push pages, he added, Car Club can gauge customers’ most frequently asked questions and revise the Web site according to customer interests.

Car Club officials said they are monitoring gains from the system but explained it is still too early to draw any conclusions. The company has been beta testing the service for several weeks and will announce it in December.

Despite the promises of marrying Web technology with toll-free calling, there are still some drawbacks with AT&T’s system.

A key concern for call center managers will be whether they’ll pick up the tab on even more 800 calls. It remains to be seen if Web cruisers click the “call me now” icon out of idle curiosity and rack up further expenses for the call center.

One alternative is the use of an Internet phone that allows users to make voice calls over an Internet connection. But some customers feel less confident using an Internet phone when conveying personal or financial information, London said. And Net phones require specialized equipment and software at both ends.

One other downside of AT&T’s technology is that a call center’s customers who want to take advantage of the push pages must have two phone lines or ISDN–one line for the Internet connection and another line to receive the phone call. That places a cap on the number of households that could benefit from the shared information. In the future, AT&T expects to be able to provide the service over a single line.

AT&T will target the service at companies that engage in complex transactions over the phone. Businesses that may benefit are travel agencies, financial services, franchise organizations and technical help-desk services.

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