THE MECHANICS BANK, Richmond, Calif., has long prided itself on its employees' customer service savvy. The systems supporting those employees, though, were another matter.

Mechanics discovered that many of its competitors could provide customers with product or rate information simply by pressing a few buttons on a keyboard. Mechanics' banking representatives, on the other hand, often had to grab a brochure or another employee to obtain similar information.

Bank employees also were struggling with antiquated platform and teller systems that could be termed "user unfriendly."

"The word |error,' in huge letters, would pop up on the screen," said Anne Stanford, assistant vice president and manager of information systems development. "Customers would get nervous."

When management realized its branch automation systems were in need of an update, Mechanics did a fairly exhaustive search of the market.

The bank settled on hardware and a suite of platform, teller, and general office automation software from Unisys Corp. that alleviated a number of problems in its 15 branches. The new system was compatible with Mechanics' existing core banking systems, which were also Unisys-based. But it also provided the full range of customer service support the bank demanded.

The heart of the system is Unisys' FSA Finesse product. This application creates graphically designed pages depicting financial products, branch employees, and banking hours. It generates loan or investment calculations and can compare financial products.

"With Finesse, we could design our own product information screens complete with graphics," said Ms. Stanford.

Finesse also communicates with the bank's other computers to retrieve rate information or open a new account. In addition, the software can complete teller functions and produce management reports.

"Plus, the |what-if' calculations were superior [to the competition]," Ms. Stanford added. "There were more kinds of calculations and this was the only product where you could compare different financial products side by side."

Branch employees also have access to Unisys' OFIS software. The application provides a spreadsheet, word processor, graphics, and interoffice mail.

Connectivity was another issue. The CTOS platform is based on so-called open architecture, meaning it could be modified easily to communicate with other computers in the bank, such as the IBM AS/400 used for credit card processing.

Another factor in Finesse's favor was ease of installation. CTOS addresses memory in a different way than other products so there are none of the memory and operating system conflicts typically associated with installation. With the hardware required for the other packages, it took Mechanics technicians four to five hours to install a single user. In that same time, they could set up nine users on the Finesse system.

So far, the bank is pleased with the change.

"Customer service has improved significantly," said Ms. Stanford. "Our banking service representatives had to get up four to five times to respond to a single customer request. Now all that information is at their fingertips, so representatives can spend quality time with the customer."

Before the system was installed, for example, a customer service representative needed 45 minutes to open a new investment retirement account, typing the customer's name 25 times and asking for the same information several times. Now, the task takes five minutes.

Because much of Mechanics' product information is now on-line, training sessions are shorter. Before the new system, training a new service representative took approximately five days. That training session has now been cut to a single day.

In addition, tellers and service representatives can access each other's applications, with platform employees able to perform the teller functions, and vice versa. "This way, we consistently work all of our people," said Ms. Stanford.

Mechanics' branch automation even helps stop customer attrition. Finesse software has a function that calculates the dollars needed to match an interest rate on a particular loan or deposit account.

"Let's say we are offering a savings account with a 3.4% interest rate while the bank down the street is offering 4%," said Ms. Stanford. "With this program, we could show him that the difference is only say $10. We could then tell him that it wouldn't be worth his while to withdraw his money from our bank, especially since we offer superior service."

"With this feature, we saved some of our accounts," she added.

The software may also boost bank revenues. Finesse's cross-sell feature reviews information about the customer, then displays some suggestions on the computer screen. For example, if somebody started a new account, the system would prompt the banking service representative to ask if the customer wanted a credit card. This feature is available for both platform employees and tellers.

Mechanics also eliminated many of its preprinted forms-with an additional piece of software, called Forms Plus Laser, by Foresite, Redwood City, Calif. This package stores hundreds of documents used by the bank and prints them from a laser printer when needed.

The elimination of preprinted forms reduces many of the costs associated with design, typesetting, storage, and shipping.

"I can't give you a figure for the savings associated in computerizing our forms," said Ms. Stanford. "But I can tell you the savings are significant."

The bank, however, does have a complaint about its new system. With its current teller terminals, print commands go directly to the printer. The new system, however, is configured in such a way that print commands go from the teller workstation to the branch processor and then back to the printer. Known as spooled printing, this causes a delay of half a second.

"We hope to make up for the delay with the other increases in productivity we get from the system," said Ms. Stanford. "But I'd still like to see faster printing."

At first the half a second delay doesn't seem like much, but on closer observation it is. "On the teller side, where people are standing on line, you need to get them in and out quickly," said Ms. Stanford. "In this context, any kind of delay will make a difference."

To date, productivity gains have not cost people their jobs. Instead, the bank is using the extra time to improve the quality service. "Our banking service representatives are now writing thank-you letters to, customers and our branch managers are visiting clients at their place of business," said Ms. Stanford. "These are things they never had the time to do before."

Mechanics would not disclose the price it paid for its system. A Unisys spokesman said that a CTOS branch processor costs between $7,500 to $12,300, the price of a teller workstation ranges between $ 1,900 to $3,200, and the laser printer sells for $3,900.

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