How does someone who is accustomed to doing business with a handshake - and who still can't program a VCR - negotiate with an Internet access vendor who talks a blue streak about bandwidth and download times? For many community bankers, this dilemma sounds familiar. Small banks that are taking the technology plunge have often found themselves caught in a swirl of options, as experts lecture them on what electronic services they should be offering and as vendors try to sell their wares. "Most CEOs in community banks know that they need to be staking out territory in electronic delivery of financial services, but the sheer volume of information and choices, not to mention the pace of change, can be overwhelming," said Alice M. Dittman, president and chief executive officer of Cornhusker Bank in Lincoln, Neb. What is the forward-thinking but computer-illiterate chief executive to do? As new delivery channels have mushroomed and bank presences on the Internet have blossomed, more and more consultants and service companies have come forward to offer guidance and technical assistance. Trade associations are also stepping in to help. The upshot, experts say, is that bankers need not feel pressured to make significant decisions or investments without a helping hand. "The cost of entry can be high for small banks, and outsourcing is going to be a real key," said Gary Meshell, director of electronic financial services at Price Waterhouse. "These people are not going to be able to operate and manage it internally." Smaller banks agonizing over technology choices can call on the American Bankers Association's "Community Banker's Electronic Tool Box" as a comprehensive and objective resource. Available free to members, the ABA kit includes a thick workbook describing the gamut of card and electronic retail products. Questionnaires help banks evaluate their readiness to provide products like screen phones, Web sites, and telephone voice response units. An accompanying video provides examples of community bank technology strategies and accomplishments. Lori Philo Cook, vice president of marketing at Northrim Bank, Anchorage, describes how she set up a demonstration center in the bank's sole branch to sell customers on the idea of home banking using screen phones and personal computers. Ms. Dittman explains how offering full images of checks and imaged statements helped Cornhusker Bank capture customers. For bankers who want a human touch while deciding which technologies to adopt, throngs of consultants stand at the ready. The consultant's role is to help the bank determine its business goals and to figure out how much outside support it needs to reach them, said Jim Barber, vice president of the Netcomm Group of Nobelsville, Ind. "The first thing we do is go in and do a survey with them to find out what the real business needs are," Mr. Barber said. "We're not just going to throw technology in there and make the business fit to it." Mr. Barber said most of his community bank customers agree there is a strong business case for the more conservative technologies, like voice response units. There is more disagreement over the value of putting up a site on the World Wide Web. "One perception is, 'Why do I want it in my small community bank?' " Mr. Barber said. "The other perception is, 'Everybody's up on it and I've got to have a presence just to have a presence.' " Smaller banks that do decide to launch a Web site can do so with minimal fuss and at low cost. To minimize hand-wringing, both the ABA and the Independent Bankers Association of America offer their members inexpensive Web-building packages. The ABA's "Bankers WebSite" lets community banks post up to 15 customized pages on the World Wide Web for a $2,500 setup fee and a $350 quarterly service fee. Banks must use their own local Internet provider. The IBAA will do it for less: an initial $1,500 plus a $120 monthly service charge will buy a bread-and-butter bank site from the IBAA's endorsed vendor, RJE Communications Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif. "One of the biggest apprehensions that people have is security," said Joyce Hlava, president of RJE, which does nothing but design bank Web sites. "I tell bankers that there are a whole lot of ways to use your Web site without getting into on-line transactions and banking."
Another fear, Ms. Hlava said, is that a small bank will wind up having to host its own site by investing in a server and router plus software, telephone lines, and technology experts who know what all those things are. Minimum cost? Around $50,000. "I say, 'You don't have to do it yourself. It can be hosted on somebody else's site, and the cost can be reasonable,' " Ms. Hlava said. And for bankers whose eagerness to offer Internet banking outweighs any security misgivings, Online Resources and Communications Corp. of McLean, Va., will be offering packages by the end of June that will allow banks to offer bill payment and other transaction services through the Internet. "If somebody wants to go from zero to 60, we can set them up on the Web and we can also set them up to do transactions on the Web," said Joe Koshuta, director of product planning and Internet services at Online Resources. Mr. Koshuta is gung-ho about community banks on the Web. "There are very few reasons not to do this," he said. "You can have a very effective Web site for less than $5,000. You can also get up on the Web for less than $1,000, but you get what you pay for." Another company that recently began offering Internet services to community banks is Leapfrog Technologies of Commerce, Ga., which boasts that the sites it builds offer bank-specific loan, mortgage, and CD rate information. Outside the Internet realm, some companies are also reaching out to community banks to offer home banking for retail customers and PC-based cash management systems for small businesses. "These products allow the smaller bank to be competitive with a money- center bank," said M.A. Hancook, manager of marketing communications at Sterling Software Inc.'s banking division in Dallas. Sterling, which was once strictly a big-bank software house, now works with more than 300 community banks to provide home banking. The software enables customers not only to E-mail their banks and do basic transactions, but also to do foreign currency exchange. As with virtually all products being marketed to community bankers, the vendor emphasizes its system's ease of use. "You can access this sucker with just about anything you have sitting on your desk," Ms. Hancook said. "You can practically access it with a Nintendo game."