While most banks agonize over which home banking delivery channel to plug into, Barnett Banks Inc. has decided to cover all the possibilities by experimenting with each.
From a test of screen phones two years ago, the Jacksonville, Fla., bank company has moved to personal computers and telephones. And not satisfied to sit back and watch these technologies grow, Barnett now has a chance to test a medium that many experts say holds the most potential for getting consumers to bank at home - interactive television.
The $42 billion-asset company is joining a pilot in Orlando being run by Time Warner Inc. It offers services via cable TV such as shopping and videos on demand to some 4,000 to 5,000 households.
The pilot gives cable subscribers an upgraded set-top box with PC-like functions that can be activated through a remote control. The test began last December.
Barnett's plan for the service is to offer customers the ability to check account balances, transfer funds among accounts, write checks, or request stop payments. The bank is hoping to be up and running with the Orlando pilot by yearend.
Mark Hulshart, director of the financial services division of the Interactive Television Association in Washington, D.C., calls the Time Warner pilot one of the most aggressive among some 40 tests underway in the United States.
"Interactive television is an excellent opportunity for banks to brand themselves and a low-cost platform to improve market penetration and customer retention," Mr. Hulshart said.
What makes this service affordable from a technological development standpoint, he said, is that banks are not made responsible for laying cable or supplying home cable boxes or other communications units.
"What they are responsible for are the activities behind the scenes, such as the computer systems that provide customer access and establish security," he explained.
Wary of the ambitious claims made for interactive TV, Barnett is maintaining a temperate attitude toward the technology. Its stance evolved from experience with years of overblown hopes for some new product that never quite met expectations.
"Anything can be made to sound neat in market research," said Catherine Corby, director of electronic delivery strategy at Barnett. "But not until the customer puts the money down and figures out how a new technology fits in their lives will we know what is real and what is not."
That acknowledgement of the stubbornness of consumer habits is part of the attraction of interactive TV - consumers are already accustomed to a device they use every day in their homes, namely, the remote control.
"Interactive TV has to be driven by the remote control because you can't expect a consumer to take out a keyboard to watch television," said Paul Lambert, director of interactive services at Barnett.
Unlike personal computers, which are largely a tool of the middle class and the affluent, televisions have an egalitarian reach. Mr. Lambert said that 98% of U.S. households have at least one TV and 62% are wired for cable.
But hawking the straightforward and serious services of banking through this medium poses specific challenges.
Mr. Hulshart of the Interactive Television Association, who works with banks on developing strategies for use of the medium, said that merely migrating the look of an ATM screen to a TV leaves television's potential largely untapped.
A videotaped teller explaining the functions and choices of television banking is much more appealing, he said. Barnett's Ms. Corby said that the standard for visual content is really set by Hollywood and video game manufacturers.
"We need to figure out how to get consumers to turn to our channel," she said. "If content doesn't pass the test, what good is banking by television if no one tunes in?"
Whatever images they choose to project onto their customers' television screens, Mr. Hulshart added, banks should strive to reinforce the reputation they've spent years building in the more conventional marketplace.
For Barnett, that image is convenience. "We own convenience in Florida," Ms. Corby said. "We want to continue to own convenience through whatever channel our customers are using."
Once its banking services go on the air, Barnett will be measuring usage among existing customers and whether the test increases its share of the Orlando market.
Not that Barnett has too much to worry about in that department. The company has at least a single-account relationship with more than 40% of households in its home state. Nevertheless, gaining customers is a goal of each of the bank's alternative electronic delivery channels, as is enhancing fee income from greater transaction volumes.
Subscribers to Barnett's PC banking service, for example, are an important example of how customers warm up to electronic delivery channels. While the subscriber total has been disappointing, Ms. Corby said, users of the service have given more of their business to Barnett.
"These customers have consolidated their financial relationship because of the convenience of managing these relationships electronically," she said.
Barnett's PC banking customers gain access to the service through the Prodigy on-line network, paying a monthly fee of $9.95. Users have signed on from as far away as Alaska, validating what Barnett's Mr. Lambert said is consumer demand that banks "give me what I want where I am."
One way Barnett is planning to entice more customers to PC banking is to offer the service outside of the Prodigy network through direct access to the bank.
Barnett is also looking at improving its marketing of the service, especially through branch employees.
"The emphasis needs to be on getting a better understanding among our own people on how it works so they can do a better job of representing it to the customer," Ms. Corby said.
Barnett's 1995 budget for information technology stands at about $150 million, and about 5% growth per year is projected. The company may eventually spend some of those dollars on innovations such as smart cards. These products will have microchips that can store electronic cash for use in stores, gas stations, and other retail outlets.
The company's technological future may also include another look at screen phones, which the bank tested for six months in 1993. The test equipped 50 Barnett checking account customers with devices developed by Apple Computer.
Customers entered commands by running an electronic pen over the touch- sensitive display screen of the device, which was closer to a notebook computer than a telephone.
The results were disappointing, and Ms. Corby said the problem was a lack of demand. "Our interest in the screen phone helped shape our strategy to be one where we are going to follow the technology into consumers' lives, and not try to lead it," she said.
Ms. Corby added that she believes home telephones will evolve into integrated devices with PC-like features and more functions than were available on the unit used in Barnett's test.
Screen phones also taught the bank an important lesson about the evolution of bank technology.
"Traditionally, the banking industry has owned its delivery channels, but today's technological evolution is bringing shared channels of delivery among multiple industries," Mr. Lambert said. "It's a completely new game, and we need to be prepared for it."
Meanwhile, the traditional home phone is working just fine for Barnett. Its three telephone banking centers currently handle 45 million calls a year, 80% through voice response.
As its alternative electronic delivery services evolve, Barnett has its branch system still very much in mind. The company has 628 branches in Florida and Georgia, at which customers do 70% of their retail transactions. This is an unusual ratio among large retail banks, where the norm is closer to 50%.
The importance of the branches has significant implications for the way Barnett's home banking strategy develops. "We want to make sure we are delivering a consistent message across all channels," Ms. Corby said.
An obvious means of achieving that goal is through pricing. If Barnett wants to encourage telephone usage, she said, it won't charge customers a fee for a transaction that would have been handled by teller or platform employees for free.
Keeping policies consistent is also applied to the level of service. "We have to ask if it makes sense to give a teller or a customer service representative in a branch a different level of authority than one on the telephone," Ms. Corby said. A uniform policy also offers clarity to customers unsure of which service to use for the transaction they want.
As customers become more accustomed to doing business electronically, Ms. Corby said, she foresees a branch network that will be a mix of full- service and self-service transaction stations.