I've heard community bankers complain that not enough customers are using their Web sites to justify the expense of setting up the sites.

But Michelle R. Gula, the manager of interactive marketing at BNK Advisory Group of Northampton, Pa., suggests that it's wrong to assume that most customers don't want to try online banking. In an internal memo to BNK clients, she said bankers disappointed in the response to this form of banking may have only themselves to blame.

Ms. Gula had been hearing that many prospective customers who e-mailed banks for information about e-banking never received a reply, so she decided to do some research to find out if that were true.

She e-mailed this message to 50 community banks: "I am moving to the area, and I am interested in opening my household accounts at your institution. Please provide me with information about your checking and savings accounts, as well as what you offer in CDs and mutual funds. Also, do you have any recommendations for insurance carriers in your area?"

Only three banks got back to her by the end of the day. A few others got back to her within a few days, but the majority never responded at all.

Ms. Gula's conclusion: "When you add the e-mail feature to your Web site, you send the message that this is another way for people to reach you. For those customers that found you online, your failure to respond to their request is just as bad as turning your back on them in your branch. Not only does it send a bad message to your current and potential customers, but it also causes you to miss opportunities."

How should banks handle e-mail inquiries?

First, Ms. Gula said, they should have a system that immediately and automatically sends a response to any online message stating that the message has been received, and that someone will contact the sender with further information within one business day.

Second, someone at the bank should be in charge of making sure e-mails are routed properly and answered promptly, she said. This person should follow up with whoever is supposed to respond to each inquiry, and make sure e-mails do not sit in an in-box while someone is on vacation.

Third, a bank should reply with a friendly, informative note explaining its philosophy and its offerings for household accounts or any other services that have been requested.

Fourth, if you do not offer what a would-be customer is looking for - insurance products, for example - invite him or her into the bank to talk about alternatives. This will help your bank gain business by positioning itself as a trusted adviser.

An effective e-mail policy can also help support your noninterest income initiatives, Ms. Gula concluded. Something as "small" as returning an e-mail can make a big difference when a customer is deciding whether to use your online offerings, such as bill payment and presentment, she said.

If your bank does not respond to an e-mail inquiry, Ms. Gula said, it may send the message that it is not connected to its Web products and will not be able support them.

Your Web site should play a crucial role in your fee income strategy, she said. Sound site management lends credence to your Web offerings and can help you advertise and cross-sell your other products and services effectively.

One final point Ms. Gula made: Bank personnel who answer telephone calls should know the bank's Web address. "If an employee does not even know this, how can a customer have confidence in your Internet product?"

Mr. Nadler, an American Banker contributing editor, is professor of finance at Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.

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