Customer information and the ability to mine it will be the bank card industry's best defense against nonbank competitors.

This was a recurring and seemingly unified theme of the American Bankers Association's bank card conference this week, sounded by prominent executives within the industry, managers in the trenches, consultants and analysts, and people selling the requisite data base technologies.

Competition and other forces for change in the financial industry are technology-driven, and bankers must stay ahead of the game if they are to prevent further inroads by outsiders, said Catherine A. Allen, chief executive officer of the Bankers Roundtable's Banking Industry Technology Secretariat.

"The new players in our industry are looking at information as a strategic asset," Ms. Allen said.

"The challenge in front of card issuers is to change the payment system into an information system," said Mark K. Tonnesen, executive vice president of Royal Bank of Canada, Toronto. "This is no time for banks to be complacent."

Susan L. Roth, vice president and senior analyst at Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, spoke of a "shift from pure transaction processing to information processing," turning payment-related data streams into marketing tools.

She said the movement is typified by First Data Corp.'s acquisition of Donnelley Marketing Inc. and development of the Usave target marketing program.

"Credit cards are one of the best places to get data on what the customer is doing," said Peter C. Aberg, vice president, Goldman, Sachs & Co.

On the card-issuing and merchant-processing sides, information is touted as an underpinning of management analysis and customer service and as the source of added value that can distinguish one company from another.

The bank card mainstream-not just information-oriented pioneers such as Providian Financial Services and Capital One Financial Corp.-is jumping on the data warehousing bandwagon.

Unless card issuers find ways to make their products more meaningful to customers, several speakers warned, those customers will take their business elsewhere. But to get up to speed, the banks must harness the necessary and expensive computing horsepower and overcome the problems that hinder effective communications between marketing departments and others with competing priorities.

Paul J. Cusenza, vice president of Capital One Services in Falls Church, Va., said his company's "mass customization" strategy was the result of a partnership between marketing and information technology.

"The marketing people have to be involved in what data is being collected, how it is being manipulated and analyzed," he said. "Technology people have to understand the marketing role, or they won't be successful."

Tom Wennerberg, director of decision systems at Advanta Corp. in Spring House, Pa., said the key to a successful data base operation is constant dialogue and cooperation between the chief of marketing and the head of information technology.

"IT folks are from Mars, marketing folks are from Venus," Mr. Wennerberg said. "Being part of one team is absolutely critical."

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