As First of America gobbled up dozens of banks in the late 1980s, client/server technology was one key to the bank's continued buying spree.

The Kalamazoo, Mich.-based bank in 1989 became one of the first in the Midwest to adopt client/server technology to market consistent products across disparate regions.

The $23 billion-asset institution has grown to nearly 600 branches from 260 in 1988. It originally installed the system to help branch staff select the appropriate products - many of which may have been unfamiliar to employees - to offer customers.

"Up to now, our emphasis has been on better sales techniques, on encouraging customer service representatives to spend more time with their customers," said Toni Jelinek, senior vice president of applications services at First of America Services, the bank's automation arm.

Because it deems this sales-based system a success, the bank is planning to use client/server technology for other applications.

The client/server technology allows First of America to continue adding new branches and new customers without bogging down its centralized processing systems. By distributing relevant information to each branch, the system reduces the number of tasks computed on the mainframe.

That has allowed the back office to concentrate more on consolidating the 600 branches under four unit banks in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Florida. The consolidation will be complete by mid-year, bank executives said.

The Michigan bank, with $13.8 billion in assets, is the third largest in Michigan, after NBD and Comerica. All of First of America's affiliate banks have adopted the client/server system, although they are not required to.

"We know (the system) has improved profitability," Ms. Jelinek said. "Our customer service reps feel more comfortable cross-selling now."

Because the bank has added so many new products lately, Ms. Jelinek could not provide specific profitability numbers. Up to now "our focus has been on sales, not productivity tracking," she said.

The bank has been unable to extract productivity data from the mainframe, so soon a feature will be added to the client/server system that can track sales at the branch level.

However, First of America does know that profitability has general indications of profitability improvements. Revenue per branch increased to $2 million in 1992 from $1.2 million in 1988, while the total number of branches increased to 550 from 372.

"First of America was one of the first in the Midwest to address the client/server environment with Unix," said James Elliott, area director for major financial systems at AT&T Global Information Solutions. The move gave the bank more flexibility, he said.

AT&T supplies the branch controllers, workstations, and networks used in the bank's branches.

An AT&T server at the branch stores customer profiles and account information and provides scripts so branch employees can show customers how different products would work for them.

The bank encourages platform managers to spend most of their time cross- selling to customers. To aid them in this endeavor, much of the branch paperwork typically associated with new account openings has been either eliminated by the system - many brochures, forms, and applications have been converted to on-screen formats - or moved to other areas of the bank.

The platform automation system generates a sales script, based on each customer's relationship with the bank. As part of the script, customer service representatives are prompted to suggest appropriate products, such as automated teller machine cards, savings accounts, or certificates of deposit.

The representative also gets the ability to model how different rates and yields for certificates of deposit and other investment products would affect a customer's investment.

The Unix system allows the bank to manage all changes to software centrally. Each night the system is updated, and the next morning customer updates, changes to products, new rates, or new regulations appear automatically on the teller or platform manager's personal computer screen.

Ms. Jelinek said one of the most important lessons the bank learned from its implementation of client/server technology is that it is important to be selective about the information that is made available to the branches.

The branch workers were accustomed to getting full screens of information on their terminals from the bank's host-based Hogan Systems software, and they wanted access to just as detailed information on the client/server system.

"Our bankers wanted to have all the data we've ever collected available all the time," said Ms. Jelinek.

However, delivering a mainframe-like volume of information would overburden a client/server system, so the bank had to scale back its system expectations.

"One of the key things you have to think about is how much data really needs to be distributed," said Ms. Jelinek.

"You need to think about how much data you really need to make the sale."

One way the bank streamlined the amount of data available via the client/server network was by distributing to branches in a given state only the information about customers whose accounts were in that state. The system is also tailored to product names and specifications and the regulations of each state.

The bank developed much of the software to access the host in-house, "largely because when we started this development there weren't any vendors offering" this type of software, Ms. Jelinek said. Ms. Jelinek's staff learned it was important to provide a way to store information in the event of an interruption in the session. Typical interruptions include a customer leaving the bank without making a purchase, or if the network goes down. "You must be able to keep the data and pass it on," she said.

In addition, the bank learned to keep the system simple so as little duplication of effort as possible occurred. For example, with the client/server system, customers need only be asked once for their address.

While the vast majority of the bank's applications still run on mainframes, the success of the platform automation system is leading the bank to consider using client/server technology in other areas.

The bank is now testing noncash self-service banking terminals that would link to the retail branch system. Customers can query the machines about products, and receive responses to their inquiries tailored to their relationship with the bank.

In another project, commercial lenders are using laptop computers, on a trial basis, to help determine the profitability and pricing of commercial loans. The lenders can do "what if" modeling on their laptops based on a client's full set of relationships with the bank.

Late in 1995, the bank plans to introduce a cash management system, based on client/server technology, that would allow commercial customers to dial in, view their portfolios, and make changes.

-Ms. Iida is a freelance writer based in New York.

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