Customer confusion about on-line banking has created a business opportunity for help-desk companies.
These companies aim to smooth out problems that customers run into when they start using on-line services. Such problems include how to connect to the Internet, configure modems, install application software and browsers, and navigate Web sites.
The roots of technical support are in corporate enterprises, serving in- house technology users. Now, help-desk companies are attracting financial services firms interested in improving customer service.
Comerica Bank illustrates a common pattern. Its call center handles "first line" questions related to basic functions, such as setting up bill payees, executing banking and bill payment transactions, and confirming funds transfers.
But when more technical questions arise, Comerica representatives transfer calls to 800 Support, a nine-year-old company based in Portland, Ore.
"We stay on the line to ensure customers' needs are met and to educate our customer support people, and get them more comfortable with technology," said Donovan Shand, the bank's remote financial services manager.
Comerica plans to continue relying on third-party providers as technology becomes more sophisticated, he said.
Employees of 800 Support are trained in Home Financial Network's HomeATM product, used by many Comerica customers, as well as in Microsoft Corp.'s Money, Intuit Inc.'s Quicken, and Digital Insight's Axis software.
Besides Comerica, 800 Support works with Webster Bank of Connecticut, Marquette Bank of Minnesota, Rockwell Federal Credit Union of Denver, Colo., Old Kent Bank of Michigan, and 1st Technology Credit Union of Beaverton, Ore.
Since it began serving home banking customers 18 months ago, 800 Support earns 20% of its revenues from financial services.
DecisionOne Corp. of Frazer, Pa., provides customer support for 50 financial services companies, said Jeanette Monroe, national sales manager, emerging technologies.
It expanded three years ago into support for on-line banking, including Web site and bill payment support.
"Our core competency is call centers," Ms. Monroe said. "Banks should be focused on banking."
Meca Software of Trumbull, Conn., the bank-owned consortium offering personal financial management software, followed a different route.
It initially began help-desk support to "jump-start" banks' use of the on-line Meca software, said Kathleen M. Bromage, chief operating officer of Meca.
The banks "universally elected not to bring the service in-house, because they were comfortable with the support their customers were getting," she said. "This gave us critical mass and put us in business."
That was three years ago. Meca now supports its six owners and three other banks.
Meca had $10 million of customer support revenue last year, Ms. Bromage said, double the 1997 amount.
She expects customer support to "be a key driver of our profitability and business mix as we move forward."