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Trader's Corner

PDQ (Pretty Darn Quick) Customer Contacts with Online Brokerages

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Imagine struggling in a losing trade and having an instant message pop up on your trading screen. An account representative suggests an educational site you might visit. That was my situation a few months ago when I opened a new trading account. I was surprised, not a little chagrined, and unhappy at the thought of someone looking over my shoulder as I traded. I had opened and funded the small account as a practice account while experimenting with a new trading vehicle. I didn't expect nor did I find the first trades to be my most expert ones, and I didn't want someone following along, watching. Since then, however, I've changed my mind about that initial contact and my brokerage's instant messaging capabilities.

That contact was part of a trend explored in the March 2005 issue of ACTIVE TRADER magazine in an article by David Obuchowski. Some online brokerages include instant messaging as one of the tools available to traders. Benefits include faster response times than might be found with email or telephone questions. Traders avoid the aggravation of elevator music while on hold for the next telephone representative. They also shorten the two-week wait I once experienced between my question to a charting service and the customer service rep's not-so-helpful answer. Shortcomings include the disordered communications typical of instant messaging. I'm a fast typist, so that I might have asked a question and added a qualification or a second question before the account representative could formulate an answer to the first question. The transcript can not be read as a chronological account of the conversation, and opportunities for misunderstandings result.

Due to the possibility for misunderstanding amid regulatory rules attached to instant messaging between client and brokerage, brokerages do not typically accept trades via instant messaging. Although my broker's "Foreign Currency and Options Brokerage Agreement" does not appear to specifically address this issue, some agreements do. In Buchowski's article, the author references CyberTrader's caution that trading instructions and fund transfer information will not be accepted via CyberTrader's version of instant messaging.

With some online brokers, new capabilities go beyond an ability to answer a quick question now and then via instant messaging. Early in my experience trading with the new platform, I wanted to set up a buy stop trade with a trailing stop. Unable to find the correct method for setting up such a trade on the new platform, I contacted my account representative via the instant messaging capability. As if reaching through the computer monitor to my keyboard, the account rep was able to take over my screen, pull down the appropriate menu tabs, click them and show me how to initiate the trade. Buchowski notes that both Terra Nova and CyberTrader offer similar capabilities. Terra Nova calls its version WebEx; CyberTrader, "Go To Assist/Desktop Streaming."

Just as my brokerage's representative did not wait for a message from me requesting help to improve my trading prowess, some sites don't wait for a request for help before offering this other service, either. According to Obuchowski's article, CyberTrader representatives call new clients and schedule a session in which the rep takes over the trading screen, demonstrating various capabilities while the new client watches. My account representative offered the same type of welcome session. This service goes beyond the typical canned instructive videos offered by many online brokerages. Perhaps I'm a slow learner, but having once spent an hour watching and re-watching a training video for eSignal, looking for the nonexistent tab the instructor clicked in order to change symbols on a chart, I can appreciate the time-saving capabilities of such a service.

Not all online brokerages offer instant messaging capabilities or make them as easy to use as mine or those mentioned in Obuchowski's article. Among brokerages offering them, optionsXpress offers a "Live Help" icon at the top of each page, Interactive Brokers offers "General Chat," and Fidelity appears to offer a chat with a live representative. Not all online brokerages plan to offer such services. Buchowski interviewed representatives of E*Trade. The brokerage discontinued a similar service after it found little customer interest. Ameritrade uses an instant messaging service when setting up new accounts, but hasn't developed a proprietary platform. Some of the other brokerages mentioned in this article might limit their instant messaging services to similar uses.

Reliability, fast execution and low-cost trades rightfully rank more importantly than instant messaging when considering an online brokerage. Still, when evaluating a new online charting service or brokerage, explore the availability of instant messaging and the conditions under which such help is available. However, if you're easily embarrassed, perhaps ask if you're going to be tactfully offered educational help if your trades dont appear to be working well.

TTFN (Instant-message speak for "Ta-ta for Now.")

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