From check cashing to statement printing to postage-stamp vending, automated teller machines have been loaded up in recent years with an ever-increasing array of features.

The question now is whether they are getting too complicated. The reasons for adding functions vary from bank to bank. Some aim to increase the perceived value of electronic banking services in customers' eyes by dispensing more than just cash. Others want to garner more fee income by charging for ATM functions such as churning out account statements.

But bankers are making clear that ATM reliability-the ability to dispense cash without undue interruption -- is their No. 1 concern these days in electronic banking.

This by no means signals the end of fancy self-service enhancements, experts said. Rather, the back-to-basics approach is a sign of the increasing importance of ATMs in how banks deliver products and services.

Raised Expectations

"Bank customers no longer view the ATM as a convenience," said Richard Speer, chairman of Atlanta-based Speer & Associates. "They now expect to be able to get cash 24 hours a day, the same way they expect to be able to get a burrito anytime at a convenience store."

A number of institutions, trying to capitalize on consumers' increasing willingness to do more of their banking through a machine, have added functions to the basic range of ATM applications in hopes of differentiating themselves from their competition.

This differentiation effort is not without its cost. Experts say that placing a customized function on an ATM typically increases the servicing expenses for that machine.

For example, the servicing and replenishing costs for an ATM that dispenses coins as well as cash can exceed such costs for a standard ATM by as much as 30%.

The Waiting Game

More important, experts said, is the fact that many of the more advanced transactions take longer to conduct, which can often result in what bankers term "queuing problems," a euphemism for making customers wait in line for their money.

"We cannot afford to have someone standing in line [for an ATM! as a person in front engages in some lengthy, esoteric function," said Lynn Clements, vice president in BankAmerica Corp.'s electronic banking subsidiary, Versatel.

BankAmerica has nearly 5,000 automated teller machines, twice the number of any other bank.

Fear of Failure

In addition, several bankers have indicated that advanced functions such as displaying an image of a deposited check are more likely to fail and force an ATM out of service.

Despite these drawbacks, many bankers still show an interest in installing advanced functions. For example, a recent survey by the American Bankers Association found that almost 19% of banks with more than $1 billion of assets plan to offer the check image function within two years.

In an effort to minimize the negative effects on basic ATM services, experts said banks are installing most of the advanced applications at sites that are wanting in transaction volume.

Splitting the Functions

At high-traffic sites, the strategy typically is to place advanced functions on a separate machine that doesn't dispense cash. This ensures that people who want cash don't have long waits, and it limits service problems associated with multifunction ATMs.

The manufacturers of ATMs are doing their best to meet bankers' demands for near-perfect hardware reliability. Interbold, based in North Canton, Ohio, offers a guarantee that its ATMs will work 99% of the time.

And while archrival NCR Corp. in Dayton, Ohio, does not offer such guarantees, representatives claim the "up" times of NCR cash machines are comparable to those of Interbold ATMs.

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