As on-line banking gains popularity and importance, a new breed of banking executive will need to combine customer service experience with technical skills, consultants say.

Though banks have begun to recognize the need for on-line representatives who can field both account-related and technical inquiries, they have been slower to look for executives to run on-line customer service departments.

"The customer service revolution will be led by a business person with technical savvy," said Erin Kinikin, an analyst at Giga Information Group, a management consulting firm. "The business person needs to take more control over the technical experience."

In many cases, she said, banks had paired technical experts with executives who have customer service backgrounds. But the challenge, she said, will be to "tear down the line between these two roles."

Technical expertise is important, industry consultants said, if banks are to keep up with an increasingly Web-savvy and demanding customer base.

"In general, I've found that banks are lagging" other electronic commerce providers "in terms of delivering new forms of customer care," said Julie Schoenfeld, president of Net Effect, an on-line service provider and consulting firm. Most electronic commerce sites-both banking and nonbanking-still rely on telephone support to answer customer inquiries. What banks and other electronic merchants need, she said, are executives who can devise and adopt more innovative customer service response systems, such as real-time e-mail.

Though many banks supply an e-mail address for customer inquiries, in addition to a toll-free telephone number, customers' electronic messages fall into a queue, to be answered in the order received, rather than immediately, in a "chat" format.

If banks have been less active in hiring than other electronic merchants, part of the reason may lie in infrastructure. Internet retailers such as Amazon.com have started from scratch, but banks generally have a long-standing customer service structure in place.

The difficulty, said Eugene Putnam, a spokesman for Atlanta-based SunTrust Banks Inc., is that "the Internet is becoming a more and more important delivery system, but customers haven't discontinued using" traditional banking channels, such as branches and telephones. Since any new, on-line customer service scheme must coexist with existing departments, planning becomes especially difficult.

Many banks "have not got their act together as to what their strategy is," said Charles S. Delman, a managing director at Korn/Ferry International. "They're poised to bring executives like that on board if they can find them, but they're still doing research."

Indeed, the future of on-line customer service may lie in the rank-and- file employees who answer the phones and respond to e-mail. Banks tend to demand an extra layer of knowledge from their on-line customer service representatives, requiring them to handle questions ranging from security concerns to faulty modem connections, in addition to being able to explain an account statement.

For the most part, this has meant an extra level of training for customer-service employees before they are transferred to a dedicated on- line department. First Union Corp., which introduced on-line banking three years ago, has culled dedicated on-line helpers from its service staff.

"We've taken some of the cream of the crop of our personal service representatives," said Parrish Arturi, a vice president in the company's electronic commerce department. These are "people who have the propensity to learn quickly and adapt to customers with specific needs."

Wells Fargo & Co., which launched the first Web banking program in May 1995, has "refined how we look for employees," said Regina Wallace, senior vice president of customer service. "We look for technical skills first, then customer service skills." Training for the bank's 250 on-line agents consists of layering technical information on top of the bank's standard instruction.

Of course, better programming and design would resolve some service issues. Refined Web sites would let customers find answers to the most common questions on-line. And as sites become easier to use, many of the most basic technical questions will disappear. Still, getting to that point will require the technical leadership that many bank managers lack.

"It's a new sort of industry," said Charles Pappalardo, a recruiter in San Francisco at Christian & Timbers. "Like everything on the Net, there wasn't a place to pull experienced talent."

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