Bankers have long banged their heads against the wall when trying to sell payroll preparation service.

"Good morning," says the banker to the local businessman. "I would like to sell you payroll preparation.

"What is it, you ask?

"Take a look at how you handle your payroll now. Every Friday you give your employees payroll checks. Until they cash them, you have the use of their money in float.

"Here's how we can help you. We can automatically deposit this amount in their accounts - so you lose the float. And all we'll charge you is $1 a week per employee.

"What's in it for you? Why it's NEW, it's state-of-the-art - it shows you are a modern company."

No wonder the banker strikes out so often.

Here's another problem.

Say you're trying to sell, not to the business' CEO, but to the payroll preparer. This person thinks accepting your service will downgrade his job and lessen his importance to the company. He may even have to lay off employees, if payroll involves a department and not just an individual.

But now bankers have enough sales ammunition. Despite the lost float and the loss of importance of payroll as an internal function, many companies - large, medium, and small - are buying programs from their banks.

New software has enabled businesses to glean so many other benefits from the payroll preparation process and handle so many other reporting requirements through it that giving up the float and the authority seems worthwhile.

Like the new terminals at grocery stores that do inventory control, determine profitability, and provide marketing data while the customer checks out, payroll programs can handle much of the employee tax and reporting chores simultaneously.

Again, community bankers do not have to reinvent the wheel - the software programs are readily available. All the bank has to do is get its customer to understand why the programs are worthwhile - and not just for the bank.

Suggestion Box

All of us hate waiting to get a human being on the phone. Holding the line makes us furious; the minutes pass, and the insipid music - or worse, a commercial for the airline, rental car company - is repeated over and over.

True, in many cases a machine gives better service than some of the humans we often deal with. But when you must talk to someone to place your order or reservation or to register your complaint, you just have to wait.

If you worry about what all this waiting means to customers' opinion of your bank, you may be interested in a wonderful new gimmick I have learned of.

I called Southwest Airlines - the low-cost, efficient, and profitable carrier - and had to hold for an agent.

After about five minutes, the following message was heard:

"If you have been waiting five minutes or more and feel frustrated at the wait, please push the number 8 on your touchtone phone."

The message gives you time to do so, and then it continues:

"This doesn't speed up our handling your call - but don't you feel better having done something?"

It then concludes "Push 8 as many times as you like."

And the customer is left with a smile to offset his unhappiness at the delay.

Waiting for a Continental Airlines agent, I heard the following announcement:

"The typical African parrot can live 50 to 90 years. See, you can learn something waiting on the phone."

In banking, a sense of human can also help alleviate customer dissatisfaction.

I have always said that an ATM should greet you with "Hello" and then print your name on the screen, to give the bank a more friendly image.

I have talked a couple of banks into using this idea, but I have not won any over to my other plan: replacing the announcement "Transaction being processed" with "I'm thinking this over."

If you found this item silly or not worth your time, please push 8.

Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of American Banker and professor of finance at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.

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