It is unfortunate that, given the ubiquitous holiday vacations, most bankers have not had the time or occasion to comment on the New Year's press release of a certain large midwestern bank. What follows are selected portions of this unusual but nonetheless highly important document:

"Today, our bank inaugurates its Third-Platform account-a service earmarked for customers not eligible for the private bank but with needs much above those of the mass-market customer. This account allows these people to satisfy all their financial needs through a single bank relationship. The customer is provided with a transactions and savings account, access to credit, investment and insurance products, and financial-, tax-, and estate-planning services. All such products and services are offered by the bank either directly or indirectly via association with third parties.

"The Third-Platform account enables the holder to view his or her net worth both in isolation and in relation to that required to achieve previously specified long-term financial goals. A designated bank adviser and risk-management protector will propose steps to eliminate any net worth shortfall. In addition, that adviser will evaluate, as needed, the impact of financial environmental factors on each customer's net worth growth plan. If there is a material threat to the integrity of the plan, the adviser will immediately present new options for the customer's consideration.

"The 'dial anywhere' feature of this account provides instant information 24 hours a day. Utilizing the latest technology, the customer can access balance and valuation information by telephone, PC, or ATM. In addition, the customer can arrange to have the bank page him or her if the need arises.

"Compensation for account services will be in the traditional form of fees, rates, and balances. However, in order to avoid overcharging the customer, the bank will establish a maximum as well as a minimum per- customer return. To this end, the bank will regularly calculate the customer contribution or, if feasible, the expected net present value of the customer's lifetime relationship to the bank. If the amount of this contribution or NPV exceeds a preset figure, the customer will be able to use the excess as a credit redeemable for future services."

Quite a release! But of course it is fictitious. That it wasn't issued is perhaps banking's greatest New Year's omission. The know-how and the technology to offer and deliver such a Third-Platform account clearly exist, but bankers have not yet seized the opportunity. In this case, in a reversal of the proverbial saying: "The flesh is willing, but the spirit is weak."

Let's face it. With some honorable exceptions, banks continue to underserve those who need and are eligible for a third platform. As long as banks are unable to broaden their service coverage, market these services effectively, deliver them conveniently and cost-effectively, and charge for them fairly, they will continue to lose market share among middle-income and affluent households to nonbank entities (including the likes of a Microsoft, which can now provide many of these services and, with a few alliances, all of them).

As a result, retail profits, which are currently swollen by unsustainably high margins, especially on the deposit side, will recede.

What must be done? Job No. 1 is the recognition that banks must display vastly increased sensitivity to the customer's wants-not just those that are expressed in one-on-one sessions or in focus groups but also those that can be inferred from statistical analysis.

To achieve the needed increase in sensitivity to customers, the bank CEO must adopt a combined top-down, bottom-up strategy. He can't simply harangue his executive vice presidents and expect the message to somehow percolate down the organization. He must himself reach down to the lower organizational levels, ensuring that people in every part of the bank understand what should be done, why it should be done, how to do it, and perhaps most important, what will happen when it is done (more satisfied customers, a sustainably more profitable bank, better pay, and enhanced job satisfaction).

The CEO has to make everyone (well, nearly everyone) understand that building a customer-sensitive bank will necessitate major changes in culture, skills inventory, business processes, information systems, and perhaps even in basic reporting relationships. Focusing on just one or two of these requirements can thwart progress. For example, how many banks, seduced by the blandishments of an exciting new technology, have invested heavily in information systems only to discover that they lacked the in- house analytical skills needed to massage the new data in ways that would yield sales opportunities?

Success presupposes balance, and balance would seem to demand something like the following 10 sequential steps:

Translate the vision into a concrete business goal-e.g., raise the contribution or the NPV of third-platform customers by X percent by better serving both perceived and determinable needs.

Identify the changes in business processes and accountabilities needed to meet this goal.

Pinpoint the jobs and attitudes that must be created or changed.

Identify the skills and support systems that must be learned and secured to guarantee superior job performance.

Prioritize work initiatives.

Institute training programs to inculcate and practice the new skills.

Develop new performance metrics.

Launch pilot campaigns based on the application of emerging analytic, sales, and fulfillment skills to data base outputs.

Track and evaluate these pilot programs.

Roll out business initiatives based on the pilot-program evaluations and revisions.

What will be the result of following such a 10-step outline? Conceivably, the press release that couldn't be issued this New Year's Day might be ready by Jan. 1, 2000.

Isn't it time to make resolutions for more than just the upcoming year?

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