Some banks are striving to prove they can be trusted with far more than consumers' financial assets.
Among the leaders in trying to assert their "trusted adviser" strengths are First Direct and Natwest Group, both of the United Kingdom. They are pioneering cleverly named services intended to answer questions about anything from finances to gardening to travel in the Amazon.
"It is a logical fit between us managing money information and managing lifestyle information," said George Farrow, marketing manager of Zenda, the Natwest answer-anything service. "We want to become a person's portal on the world."
"When we speak to customers, we know the full picture," said Gill Maguire, marketing innovation manager at First Direct, a division of HSBC Holdings' Midland Bank that pioneered branchless banking 10 years ago and has dubbed its information service Octopus.
The concept is starting to appear in the United States, as banks realize they have a wealth of resources to draw upon in serving and assisting customers in many subject areas.
First Direct has fielded all kinds of requests since the October launch of its Octopus service, including one seeking advice on installing airport landing lights in a garden.
Other requests have come from people organizing weddings or bachelor parties, looking to import cars from abroad, or needing reminders about upcoming birthdays.
"We get a mix of calls," Ms. Maguire said. "Some want to delegate a task, others want to gather information or are advice seekers," she said.
Natwest, in the second phase of its Zenda pilot program, with 1,500 people, is setting its sights on a mass market.
"We concentrate on complex questions as well as simple everyday stuff," Mr. Farrow said. Zenda can, for example, send e-mail to inform customers that the train lines they use are not running.
One of its more complicated answers resolved a query about cleaning algae from a fish pond.
Zenda supplied the caller with a list of chemicals he had not previously used, other equipment he could try, and the name of a fish discovered in China but bred in Virginia that eats algae. It also supplied him with the post-office box number of the Virginia business so he could order the fish himself.
"This guy in England suddenly has the world at his doorstep," Mr. Farrow said.
Some queries have a financial angle. One man wanted the names and details of biotechnology companies that had filed applications with the Food and Drug Administration in Washington. He was searching for investment opportunities.
Zenda consists of four services-a personalized guide to entertainment, a diary and reminder service, instant answers on favorite topics, and information to help make informed purchasing decisions.
Answers can be delivered through a variety of digital devices.
In the United States, WingspanBank.com, the Internet-only offshoot of Bank One Corp., has adopted a concierge-like service aimed at helping customers plan trips, purchase tickets for various events, and make restaurant reservations.
"This is a step in the direction of becoming a trusted adviser to the consumer," said Richard W. Vague, the chairman of Bank One's First USA credit card subsidiary and of Wingspan.
He added that the Internet makes it possible to offer such nonfinancial services in a way that is cost-effective.
First Direct and Natwest are not using the Internet.
Requests to Octopus come in via telephone, e-mail, or fax to a 20-person call-center staff. First Direct may eventually create an Internet site where customers could pay to submit queries on their own.
Currently, front-line personnel take down details from customers over the telephone, while back-office researchers come up with answers.
The volume of calls is low, Ms. Maguire said, in keeping with an effort to grow slowly and work on improvements.
Zenda distributes answers via telephone, e-mail, fax, pager, mail, and through messages on automated teller machines.
A staff of 30 takes calls seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. at a center in Southampton, England. Natwest has a development team of 20 working on Zenda in London.
By mid-August, Zenda expects to introduce a 24-hour interactive voice response service where customers can call to get automated responses to their 10 most frequently asked questions, which might be about travel disruptions, local weather, or share prices.
First Direct, which is based in Leeds, charges $5 to $45 for Octopus, with prices including monthly subscriptions and fees per request.
It is open to consumers beyond First Direct's customer base of 930,000, though First Direct has marketed it, via direct mail, only to existing customers.
Zenda costs $23 a month. Natwest expects to earn revenue from subscriptions, commissions for fulfillment, and tailored advertisements.
Mr. Farrow said Zenda would recruit up to 5,000 users this year at 10 Natwest branches in southeast England. The service is being offered to "anyone willing to buy it," as long as they are "over 18 and have a bank account."
Observers in the United States and abroad are skeptical of non- financial-service offerings.
"Why would a bank offer this type of service?" said Octavio Marenzi, research director at Meridien Research in Newton, Mass.
Though banks already have call centers to meet customer information and service needs, "offering an entirely new business to a new group of people" raises questions, Mr. Marenzi said. "It seems like an act of desperation for them to differentiate themselves. It is a sideways step more than anything else."
The broadness of Octopus and Zenda puts them on par with Web portals in some respects, said Nick Jones, electronic commerce analyst at Jupiter Communications in London. All offer information searches, referral services, personalized content, and scheduling.
But the banks are at a disadvantage against the portals, he said. "As a consumer, why would I pay for a service like this?" he asked. The "timing is poor," given the proliferation of Web sites that offer similar services for free, he said.
Mr. Farrow of Zenda disagreed, calling nonfinancial services "a fantastic thing for banks to get into. It recognizes the changing consumer environment as far as information consumption goes. We're the Internet with a human face."
He added, "The world has less time on its hands. We're offering a trusted personal assistant to help people through the myriad of choices."