American Banker recently published results from a survey by KPMG Peat Marwick and Yankelovich Partners showing that 73% of consumers want to bank at a branch, while 22% want to bank exclusively through electronic channels.

While some may believe the latter number is small, I find it astonishingly large.

It is no secret that electronic banking is becoming more popular. But I suspect that even the 22% saying they want electronic banking exclusively do not really mean it. Given a choice, I think they would opt for having branch banking available, even if they used it only rarely.

As you might expect from the head of a company that makes electronic commerce possible, I am not unsympathetic to the 22%. However, I keep my money in a bank rather than in a "nonbank" because I like knowing that branches are available to me when I need them.

Rather than being a burden, branches may in fact prove to be banks' best weapon in the battle for market share with nonbanks.

For years, bankers have seen portions of their business siphoned off by nonbanks that operate without many of banking's regulatory constraints. But new banking technologies-when combined with the industry's branch infrastructure-represent a chance to level the playing field.

To capitalize on the opportunity before them, banks must recognize technology as friend, not foe. The Peat Marwick and Yankelovich Partners survey emphatically emphasizes this point.

If I were a banker and saw that 22% of consumers wanted to bank exclusively by electronic means, I'd get busy with my electronic capabilities. Technology will help redefine banking to mean access to financial information and accounts.

Many bankers also are rethinking their approaches to traditional branch banking.

Branches have to be smaller, cost less, and be broadly distributed in convenient locations, such as supermarkets. They have to be fast, smart, even entertaining. They must be staffed with retailers who understand not only products, but also marketing and people.

By upgrading their branches, bankers wisely dismiss the notion that branches are dinosaurs. Automated teller machines did not make tellers go away, debit cards are not making credit cards go away, and electronic banking won't make branches go away.

The shift toward more automated delivery has happened faster than some expected, and it shows no sign of abating.

One top-10 bank reports that 70% of its customers have not been inside a branch more than twice in the past year. The customers are using ATMs, direct-deposit payroll, home computers, and voice response units. In effect, customers are saying, "The things that I used to do in person and on paper I now want to do electronically. I want an extension of the branch system. I want channels that make my life easier."

At smaller banks, some customers may not be asking for electronic banking - yet. But that does not mean they are not interested.

Electronic banking will create a whole new generation of banking opportunities with more convenience, more choice, and more value.

It will supplement the branch, not replace it. Those banks that find the proper mixture of delivery channels are going to win in the 21st century.

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