Integrating customer relationship management systems is expected to be one of the most difficult and crucial tasks in FleetBoston Financial Corp.'s deal to buy Summit Bancorp and Firstar Corp.'s deal for U.S. Bancorp.

Those companies probably know or are going to find out that, for systems reasons and others, the risk of damaging relationships runs high in a merger despite attempts to make a good impression on the customers being acquired.

Tim Gokey, a partner and leader of the North American CRM practice for McKinsey & Co., said it is "critical to monitor customer issues and communicate the benefits of the merger to insure customer satisfaction."

Examples of how not to unify customer relationship management are readily available. During its 1998 merger with First Chicago NBD, Bank One Corp. made large software investments, but failed to blend and convert the systems. In 1996 Wells Fargo & Co. and First Interstate lost many customers through a careless and quick systems integration.

Wells Fargo's 1998 pairing with Norwest Corp. went much more smoothly. The technological end involved moving Wells customers to Norwest's customer relationship database.

The slower pace of the integration helped, Mr. Gokey said; the companies "converted everything on a timetable" that worked well with customers.

The first decision that merging banks face in evaluating their customer relationship management systems is whether to create a new system or use the better of the combined entity's two platforms.

That decision may be clear-cut for $181 billion-asset Fleet and $38.9 billion-asset Summit, of Princeton, N.J., because Fleet has made large customer relationship investments, including $33 million in a data warehouse.

Robert Hall, chief strategy officer at XChange Inc., a provider of customer relationship management software, said it would be logical for Summit to adopt Fleet's technology platform.

"The process should involve identifying your most valuable customers and making sure to put together special tactics that help them through the transition," Mr. Hall said.

The more evenly matched $86.2 billion-asset U.S. Bancorp and $74.4 billion-asset Firstar may have a harder time in making this choice.

Though Firstar is considered an excellent cross-seller, U.S. Bancorp, of Minneapolis has made high-profile investments in customer relationship management, starting with a $500 million investment in 1994.

The overhaul, which lasted until 1997, included the installation of software from American Management Systems Inc. to provide statistical modeling for marketing and customer profitability, and giving employees access to updated customer information.

David Tetenbaum, a managing vice president at First Manhattan Consulting, said maintaining service quality is especially important given the small proportion of customers who generate profits for a bank.

"In a merger, one of the key factors of success is the systematic management of the 20% who are profitable, while not ignoring the other 80%," he said. "You are trying to make sure that the key value segments are experiencing minimal disruption."

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