SAN FRANCISCO - Online bill payment may eventually become a key source of revenues for banks, but widespread adoption by customers and billers is considered unlikely at least until the industry puts aside rivalries and agrees on a standard, interoperable way to deliver it.
"Put yourself in the customers' shoes," said Bruce Luecke, executive vice president of Bank One Corp.'s retail group. "You may have multiple accounts, and will be very frustrated to have to navigate through different interfaces every week or every month to pay the bills."
Mr. Luecke, the keynote speaker at American Banker's Electronic Bill Payment and Presentment conference here this week, said online bill payment and presentment programs should be as uniform in function and appearance as automated teller machines and paper checks.
"I am indifferent about who does it, as long as it gets done," Mr. Luecke he said in an interview after his speech.
Other senior bankers added their voices to Mr. Luecke's. Ron Braco, senior vice president of Chase Manhattan Corp. and one of the executives behind the formation of Spectrum LLC, said he sees "an absolute need for standards out there." Online billing will "only work if massive bodies accept the standard."
Mr. Braco said Spectrum may be the one to develop and disseminate a standard. Spectrum is owned by Chase Manhattan, First Union Corp., and Wells Fargo & Co., and characterizes itself as a bank-friendly alternative to CheckFree Holdings Corp., the dominant vendor in online bill payment and presentment.
Two banking industry groups - the IFX Forum and the National Automated Clearing House Association - have initiated the process of setting standards, Mr. Luecke said. Spectrum, with its potential to reach a critical mass of customers, is in a good position to foster these efforts, he said.
CheckFree, of Atlanta, solidified its position this year by merging with its former rival, Transpoint, a venture formed by First Data Corp., Microsoft Corp., and Citigroup Inc.
Mr. Luecke said the banking industry, while "whining about CheckFree and others stealing our business," was ignoring the needs of the consumer. When it comes to online bill delivery, "we have taken something really simple and made it really hard," he said.
Banks should focus less on "dazzling technology" and concentrate on offering something simple that works well, Mr. Luecke added. "If customers cared about technology, then America Online would not be the No. 1 service provider in the country," he said.
Lou Anne Alexander, e-channels product director at First Union Corp., said online billing can become as pervasive as cellular telephones, but only if banks embrace a standard. Banks can differentiate themselves through their Web sites rather than through proprietary billing systems, she said.
The absence of standards is not the only thing holding back electronic bill payment. Executives at the conference said banks are not doing little or nothing to encourage customers to use the service.
Banks should run promotions and waive fees, Mr. Luecke suggested.
Billers, too, expressed frustration. "Financial institutions have not been aggressive enough with marketing our bills on their sites," said Klaus Werner, director of online marketing and e-commerce for Atlanta-based Bellsouth Telecommunications Inc. "We want to use [banks] because they are trusted by the clients, but they have to help us migrate customers online."
Gary R. Craft, an electronic commerce analyst at Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown, said aggressive marketing could make a world of difference. Online bill presentment will ultimately be "a very hot Wall Street industry, like online trading was," he said, and the winners will be the "banks that really advertise this and push this," much as E-trade pushed online trading.