WHAT FRUSTRATES business customers? Hearing their banker tell them, "I'll have to get back to you on that."

What frustrates bankers? Not being able to give quick answers to questions about today's increasingly complex products, ranging from cash management to currency hedging.

Help is on the way. Continental Bank Corp. is experimenting with a news breed of laptop computer that may soon help corporate bankers make complex transactions on the spot, even when that spot is thousands of miles from Continental's Chicago headquarters.

An unusual twist: The information is fed into the computer by a banker writing across the screen with a special pen.

Bank officials envision a day when representatives in the midst of on-site customer calls can unobtrusively write the terms of a transaction into their laptops. The units will then provide supplemental information and ask follow-up questions to make sure the electronic forms are properly completed.

Cementing a deal will be a matter of printing the agreement, getting client approval, and whisking instructions to headquarters via modem.

"The idea is to simplify the capture of information and get it into the system without all the translation problems," said Joseph O'Toole, Continental's managing director of centralized processing.

It's not a sure thing. Continental vice president Nick Ertz is the first to admit it.

At least one more generation's worth of improvement in character recognition software is needed before so-called pen-based computers can decipher the typical scrawl of a harried executive, Mr. Ertz said.

Another snag: Right now, Continental has only one software application, which applies to treasury functions in cash management. And that program is still in the testing stage. Clearly, salespeople can't be expected to lug around a one-application box. A suite of software applications must be made available, so that several products can be serviced from the laptop.

And Continental dare not entrust transactions to the new tool until it's proved rock-solid reliable. "To be frank with you, the jury is still out" on pen-based computing, said Mr. O'Toole.

Given these hurdles, it might seem Continental is wasting time tinkering with a pilot project.

But the beauty of personal computer technology is that the financial risk is low: All Continental need be concerned about is keeping its hand in play until the day when all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

At roughly $5,000 a pop for a few pen-operated machines, plus salaries for a small development team, "this is not a huge investment," said Mr. O'Toole. And given the potential of the technology, "we're at the point of saying it would be foolish not to evaluate how this might fit with our overall delivery process."

For Continental, with its $24 billion in assets, corporate banking is crucial. Under chairman Thomas Theobald, the bank has abandoned the consumer business, choosing instead to concentrate on the banking needs of midsize and large corporate customers.

The client roster might range from a family-owned tool-and-die operation in the Midwest to a Fortune 500 company.

Increasingly, the key to opening this marketplace is good relationships. Having the right products is important. Rates and fees count, too. But dependability and quick service are crucial. Thus, pen-activated computers could give Continental an edge.

Continental's approach on the pen project speaks volumes about how smart bankers pursue distant technological dreams. Rather than "throwing a lot of money at big boxes," as Mr. O'Toole put it, Continental can play off the tremendous expertise and research commitment of Microsoft Corp., which is supplying software governing the pen-based computers, and NCR Corp., the hardware manufacturer.

What's more, Apple Computer Inc. and International Business Machines Corp. are coming out with pen-based systems, giving bankers even more options.

Continental's strategy is this: Get up to speed on emerging technologies, count on vendor competition to boost quality and lower cost, and at the same time begin developing applications. Staying close to the cutting edge in this fashion, Mr. O'Toole said, enables a company to capitalize quickly on a concept when it becomes a viable tool.

At the same time, he added, the goal that must be kept in mind is service, not foisting high-tech toys on clients: "Focus too much on what you are selling, and you end up selling something the customer doesn't want."

That goes for employees who will be asked to use new tools. Going against the advice of some information management theorists, Mr. Ertz decided against focus-group sessions with the Continental salespeople who would use pen-based computers.

And during a brief session when this reporter worked with the system, it seemed easy to understand why the computers will not be used for selling until they are more fully developed.

When the pen was used for the first time, it skidded across the smooth glass face of the unit, leaving a trail reminiscent of a five-year old's first outing on ice skates. A way has not yet been found to replicate the friction that permits writing on paper to come out smoothly; it took about five minutes just to enter a name.

But remember, it was only a few years ago that personal computers could not read or send faxes, or display documents on the screen exactly as they would appear on a printed page, or perform secretarial duties such as dialing telephone numbers all day long.

What with the microcomputer industry evolving so rapidly, pen-based computer technology "will mature sooner or later," said Mr. Ertz. And when it does, he added, "Continental will be ready."

At a Glance

Continental Bank Corp. Headquarters: Chicago Assets: $24 billion Employees: 4,346 Software: Microsoft Windows for Pens Hardware: NCR Corp. model 3125 portable computer

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