Banks are expanding their on-line computer banking services for small- business customers, prodded by Intuit's development of a program linked to its small-business accounting software, according to the financial software firm.
The last time Intuit counted, in November, 28 banks had introduced or were planning to offer computer banking services using its Quickbooks financial software, designed for businesses with up to 30 employees. A spot check last week found that at least one other major bank is offering Quickbooks-based services.
Other banks, including Fleet Financial Group, are designing their own computer banking services for small businesses. Fleet plans to introduce its service by June.
Some of the largest banks to offer computer banking through Quickbooks include Bank of Boston Corp., First Union Corp., and Bank of Tokyo- Mitsubishi's Union Bank of California.
Barnett Banks Inc. plans to offer Quickbooks in addition to its propietary small-businesses banking software, Barnett Connection, to reach a larger customer base.
"Quickbooks lets us get to some of the smaller businesses," said Beth Mercier, Barnett's director of electronic delivery research and development.
Laredo National Bancshares in Laredo, Tex., views computer banking as a way to maintain existing customers and attract new customers outside its core market, said Kevin Mullins, Laredo's electronic banking manager.
Laredo plans to send direct mail solicitations to potential small- business customers within three miles of its main branch in Houston, Mr. Mullins said.
"Our goal is to bring those customers in to open commercial accounts and establish a relationship with them through Quickbooks," Mr. Mullins said.
But Charles Wendel, president of Financial Institutions Consulting, uses Quickbooks to interact with his bank and said the software may erode customer relationships.
"All of the sudden Quickbooks becomes my banker and my major relationship is with Quickbooks rather than the bank," Mr. Wendel said.
Mr. Wendel said larger banks should develop their own computer banking services that reinforce the bank's brand identity rather than buying an existing product.
James Evans, Centura Bank's business line manager for on-line banking, said the Quickbooks would not detract from customer relationships or make it too easy for Centura customers to switch banks.
"Someone will know they are using Quickbooks, but the bank brand is still there," said Mr. Evans, whose bank began offering Quickbooks in January.
Nevertheless, Mr. Evans said computer banking may help Centura attract small-business customers from other banks.
"This might tip the scale if someone is looking for a excuse to switch banks," Mr. Evans said.
When customers sign on to use Quickbooks they will scroll through a list of banks and their logos to choose their bank, an Intuit spokesman said.
The Intuit name will be at the top of the page and the bank logo will appear in the upper left hand corner of the screen whenever a customer initiates a transaction, the spokesman said.
Quickbooks is a variation on Intuit's popular Quicken program, with extra features that help with payroll and other items unique to businesses.
Quickbooks offers the same on-line banking features Quicken and other computer banking programs do, such as the ability to to check their account balances, transfer money and pay bills.
Banks expect computer banking for small businesses to be more successful than similar services for consumers because entrepreneurs are often computer savvy and balance their books at odd hours.
About 15% of small-business owners surveyed in a study conducted by Payment Systems Inc. last year have used computer banking services for some transactions.
Although the cost to introduce computer banking isn't cheap, bankers said it will pay off by helping them attract new customers and limiting their interaction with more costly branch personnel.