Michael Grisham is making the rounds of banking conferences these days, trying to sell the men and women in pinstripes on the virtues of American Telephone & Telegraph Co.'s newest consumer wonder, the SmartPhone.
It's unusual both for the audience, which is not used to middle-aged salesmen with ponytails, and for Mr. Grisham, whose fields of interest have at times been miles away from banking.
In college he ran government-sponsored experiments on the behavioral effects of marijuana (on chimpanzees, not humans). As a university professor, he studied time perception in experiments with pigeons.
Whetting Consumer Appetites
Mr. Grisham is now manager of strategic planning at AT&T Network Systems, where he has labored for years to build features into telephones that will make people want to use them.
He's the guy who put a braille-like dot in the finger hole of a rotary dial because people like tactile connections. His first project focused on voice storage systems that were precursors to today's answering machines.
Mr. Grisham, who has a master's degree and a PhD from the University of New Mexico, says his tools come from experimental psychology. He is a behaviorist, with a special interest in the programmed learning techniques of B.F. Skinner.
He joined Bell Laboratories, AT&T's research arm, as a consultant in the "human factors" department, which focuses on user-friendly equipment. One of his first assignments was to review a repair device that combined elements of a telephone and a computer to ensure that it could be used by linemen who never saw a terminal. The equipment had a telephone handset with a touch-one pad and a small screen.
Out of that project grew his interest in banking.
The Next Step
Mr. Grishman believed he could design a standard telephone with a screen that could be used by consumers to pay monthly bills, check bank balances, and get updates on weather, news, and travel.
If it were easy to use, he believed, it could go all the way and replace conventional touch-tone phones. AT&T bought the idea and built the phone.
Huntington Bancshares Inc. also saw it, liked it, and ponied up for the project. The Columbus, Ohio, bank company is now teaming up with Mr. Grisham and AT&T to market the home-banking service of SmartPhone to other banks.
The device, which has been in development for five years, is just about ready for mass distribution. Huntington plans to distribute several thousand SmartPhones to customers in coming months, and AT&T says it will begin selling the device from its own phone stores soon.
The "smart" part of the phone comes from special software that will allow customers to press a few buttons to do their banking from home. Mr. Grisham believes it is only a matter of time before the SmartPhone will be as common in a home as a microwave oven.
Some bankers are close to buying his argument and many others are, at least, listening to it.
Chemical Banking Corp. and Citicorp, as well as institutions from as far away as Chile and New Zealand, are looking at the phone with interest.
Though bankers give high marks to Mr. Grisham's design, they have some qualms. Chief among them is the price. At a cost to consumers of $300 to $400, the SmartPhone is thought by some to be too expensive. (Huntington plans to lease the phone to customers for a monthly fee plus a one-time charge of $100).
Mr. Grisham acknowledges that the price in steep, but believes that prices will drop as the device gains popularity.
AT&T is also working on a number of sales strategies, including packaging the phone with diverse types of information services to make it more attractive to consumers.
Despite his unconventional appearance, Mr. Grisham makes his pitch eloquently, in language that businesspeople understand.
"He may not look like your typical corporate blue suit, but he has fundamentally sound ideas on business and marketing," says William Randle, executive vice president at Huntington.