The Internet has caused minor crises in the way financial services companies have had to organize themselves but has become a tremendous service tool, said participants in a December roundtable organized by the Internet consulting firm Mainspring.
Lawrence Baxter, an executive vice president at Wachovia Corp., described the three iterations of Internet development at his company. Stage one, which involved gaining credibility, was tough, he said. "The first session was a group therapy session. It literally was. Everybody held each other together and said, 'This too will pass.' "
Then, as Wachovia executives began using the Internet themselves as consumers, the company started to "get it" quickly, Mr. Baxter said. During that stage, there were "a lot of crazy Internet-oriented proposals coming up. In a way it was a great time because you no longer had to convince people that what you were doing was important."
Now the Winston-Salem, N.C., banking company has entered the third phase, the new-economy stock slide having kicked in and made it harder to show real value from Internet initiatives. "I think we're in a very strange new phase where it's a lot more sophisticated than it was before."
Bruce Zimmerman, senior vice president of the national consumer services Internet group at Chase Manhattan Corp., said organizing for electronic commerce is an ever-changing process: "You keep trying to calibrate and calibrate and calibrate."
Mr. Zimmerman said his company started off in a very spread-out manner and then gradually centralized. Now that the importance of the Internet taken hold and been rooted at the business-unit level, Chase may be moving toward an even higher degree of centralization, he said.
"There is no longer that cultivating that needs to happen," Mr. Zimmerman said. "Everybody is in e-commerce."
Antony Jenkins, chief operating officer of C2it at Citigroup Inc., said the Internet has helped banks learn faster and act faster on what they learn. "If you send out a piece of direct mail by snail-mail, it takes 12 weeks to reap a curve of the response of that. You send out an e-mail solicitation, it takes 48 hours."
He continued: "I sense that we're seeing the same sort of compression in terms of how organizations react and organize around the Internet. Inside our company we are at the point where this is embedded broadly across the line-management organization and where our senior management is very concerned and focused on how we maximize the opportunities that the Web brings, which is exactly the right place, I think, for organizations to be."
Despite the travails of managing the Internet, there is little doubt among executives that it has helped customers. "It really has given them a lot more access and choice in how they conduct business with us," said Nancy Jones, vice president of Internet strategy and development at American Express Financial Advisors. "We always talk a lot about the customer being the CEO, because they really have access to more information and data and tools and calculators than they ever would have had access to if it weren't for all the Web sites that are out there."
The Internet has also been good for Amex's financial advisers, who at one time worried that the medium would cannibalize their relationships with customers, Ms. Jones said. "Today they absolutely love it," she said. "It really has benefited the relationship they have with their clients."
Most of the new technology investments proposed for next year at Wachovia are Internet-oriented, Mr. Baxter said. "Customer behaviors are adapting very fast. I don't think customers themselves even know exactly how they'll settle into Internet usage," he said.
What is certain is that "the rhetoric of the new economy has finally gotten people to a mindset where they realize that they've got to be very customer-oriented and willing to redesign businesses," Mr. Baxter said. "It's not to say that we have redesigned businesses, but certainly accept that as a legitimate way to start thinking about the business."
The executives indicated that they still are not sure what to think about wireless technology, except that they should be wary of the hype surrounding it. "You have to separate the vendor and techie-driven hype from the fact that it actually is yet another potentially and sometimes actually useful channel," Mr. Baxter said.
Wachovia has deployed wireless services for its commercial customers and is planning to offer them to retail customers. "On the corporate side, we have customers who are delighted that they can now check their cash management positions and send authorized wire transfers, using PDAs or sitting in the back of the cab from the airport," Mr. Baxter said.
He cautioned against overprojecting wireless usage among consumers. "I wouldn't say that this is going to be the fastest growth area, but I do think it's going to become something, and that customers will expect you to be able to communicate with them that way," he said.
Chase's Mr. Zimmerman warned not to count on wireless as "the next greatest thing," because such "killer apps" often are like the pot at the end of the rainbow.
"You never quite get there," he said. "As businesspeople, we are well served to turn down the volume a little bit on the latest hype. The reality is we're high-fiving one another because we're into double-digit penetration of just plain old online banking or credit cards."
Managing new technology is a balancing act, Mr. Zimmerman said, because of basic human tendencies to overestimate the near term and underestimate the long. "In the long term all these things are going to fundamentally change the way we, as businesses, operate, because it's fundamentally changing the way our customers will interact with us. It's just a question of reasonably moving along that curve, if you are focusing on things like returns."
The participants debated whether users of new technology had a high tolerance for uneven performance of new devices or higher expectations than the general population.
"I think that early adopters are way more forgiving," Amex's Ms. Jones said. "The more mainstream consumers, they are the ones who want it perfect. The early adopters are like: 'Hey, this is cool technology. I'm going to try the cool thing. I know it might not be perfect yet, but I'm going to be the first one to try it.' "
Mr. Jenkins of Citi's C2it noted that expectations vary, depending on the users' age. "Generationally, there is a huge gap," he said. "I'm speaking as somebody with a 12-year-old daughter who has grown up with a computer in the way that we grew up with telephones. There will be expectations of that generation. The expectation of her generation is that I go online, I go on my cell phone, or whatever. That's the first thing."
The topic of account aggregation elicited mixed opinions from the participants. "This is another concept that's been hyped enormously, so there is a sense of, 'You've got to have aggregation or you're not going to be in the game,' " Mr. Jenkins said. "I think the adoption rate will come, but it will be sort of linear with the complexities of people's lives." Even so, he said, "there still is going to be a significant market for it over time, particularly when you combine it with things like money transfer or payment capabilities."
Mass-market consumers, with their relatively simple portfolios, are not likely to care much about aggregation at first, Mr. Baxter said. "But over time they will assume that there is something wrong with the institution that doesn't provide it. I think aggregation is going to be a must. But it will be something that has to be deployed extensively tomorrow."