Preaching To The Converted

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When Pawtucket Credit Union decided it was time to upgrade its informations system, management looked to a nearby bank for advice-on what not to do.

During the first phase of a massive sell-off of branches by FleetBoston Financial Corp. to Sovereign Bank -that would include 800,000 customers, 120,000 of whom lived in Rhode Island-a software glitch triggered problems that shut out members from ATMs and online banking services, and wiped out vital account information.

According to local and state media, it was a fiasco that resulted in the loss of a lot of customers.

"It was the talk of the whole state," said PCU President and CEO Karl A. Kozak. "We were determined not to let the same thing happen to us."

Part of PCU's plan to avoid a similar nightmare was to take things slowly and keep members informed every step of the way.

That meant deciding what the community chartered CU with $675-million in assets wanted in a new system, and who could best provide it. It sought out input from staff at every level and hired an outside public relations firm to communicate the entire process with members.

"The banking climate was not so good, so we needed to do something to keep that confidence with our members, let them know that we were in control," explained Frances DiFiore, PCU's marketing director. Three months since the successful weekend conversion that replaced an outdated NCR system with the more advanced solution from Open Solutions, Inc., Glastonbury, Conn., top officials at PCU and OSI said the process couldn't have run any smoother.

"It went off without a hitch," said Robert P. Andrade, executive UP and COO at PCU. "When we opened Monday morning there were no problems."

The process began more than two years ago when PCU staff and board decided it was time to overhaul its core processing solution.

"Our (then) current provider wasn't keeping up with the technology that was happening around us," Kozak said. "We felt that we were losing ground."

Open Architecture Sought

What the credit union was seeking was a solution based on an open architecture platform- "One you can add to," Kozak said-from a company that was "visionary."

After making inquiries to 15 different providers, PCU narrowed the field to four finalists and brought officials from each into its offices to meet with senior management, department managers and supervisors.

"There were 30 to 40 people (at PCU) involved in the process," he said. "One of the advantages in making it so seamless was having everybody involved on different levels. With a lot of people working together, we were able to look at all possibilities."

While the selection process was admittedly time consuming-it took well over two years-Andrade claims it was well worth it. OSI came out on top with its Windows-based system that offers real-time banking and up-to-the-minute ATM balances, for starters.

"The bottom line is our new system will allow our members to do their banking faster and more flexibly," Andrade said.

William A. Besse, senior VP of business development, added that PCU is "extremely comfortable and confident that this was the right thing to do." Besides being able to serve members faster, he said the system could integrate products from other data processors.

"We were offering a lot of the same products (as our competitors) but we could never get them to the level that we wanted," Kozak said, explaining that with the new system, a teller can pop up a member's entire credit union relationship in an instant.

One advantage, of course, is that they can cross-sell products more effectively, he said.

Kozak said it would be difficult to calculate the investment in the system, but said some of the hardware was already in place, cutting the expenses.

"It is a considerable savings to what we were paying," he said, adding that PCU can switch the services in-house at any time.

Before the late April conversion took place, staff underwent extensive training to learn how to use the new system.

"We have a training center in our new operations building," Kozak said. "Everyone was put through it so they could learn everything well in advance."

In addition to classroom training, he said, each of the credit union's nine branches had a test bank terminal on which employees could practice.

Kozak and the others interviewed agreed that the public relations efforts were a huge part of the conversion's success. Among the efforts to keep members informed was the compilation of a conversion handbook that explained the how's and why's of the process that was sent to every member.

"It included the changes they could expect and the things that would remain the same," DiFiore said, adding that members who accessed the credit union via the Internet also were able to access an online version of the book.

"As the date of the conversion approached, we sent out a series of e-mails telling them what was coming," she said. "Then, once it was over, we let them know it was time to log in or come into the CU."

Kept In The Loop

She said employees also were kept in the information loop with material similar to that sent to members, along with a cheat sheet to help them answer members questions.

"Right from the onset we felt it was extremely important that everybody know what was going on so when the weekend (to convert) came, nobody came up and wondered why the CU doors were locked," Besse said.

He said the credit union received many favorable comments from members "thanking us for letting them know what was going on."

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