Viking Community Bank is so confident that its computers will be ready for the year-2000 date change that it is putting money on it.
The Seattle bank has promised senior citizens that if their Social Security payments fail to arrive in their bank accounts the first week of January 2000, Viking will cover them with interest-free loans.
"The motivation is to comfort and reassure our Social Security customers, a vulnerable segment," said Dan Icasiano, vice president at the $93 million-asset bank.
Since the offer was featured in the Seattle Times, "customers have commented to us that we must be pretty sure we will be ready," he said.
According to federal regulators, more than 95% of banks and thrifts are making satisfactory progress preparing their computers for the millennium. With technological concerns seemingly under control, small banks are turning to the next stage of their year-2000 plans: convincing customers the bank is ready. It could be an even tougher task than upgrading software, experts said.
"Computer problems are logical; customer problems are emotional," said Kevin B. Tynan, president of Tynan Marketing Inc. in Chicago. "Bankers tend to prefer logic issues."
Getting the message to customers is extremely important, he added. Smaller banks have to battle the misperception that large banks are better equipped to handle the date change. Several personal finance magazines have urged readers to move their deposits to large banks.
"People have heard the stories and are hungry for reassurance," Mr. Icasiano said. "It's our job to convince them that even the small banks will be ready."
Most institutions are holding seminars and stuffing statements to explain the situation to customers. However, bankers said they must do more to prepare for the panic that doomsday predictions could create.
"We need to initiate the discussion and get creative," said Donald R. Mengedoth, president and chief executive officer of $6 billion-asset Community First Bankshares of Fargo, N.D. "If there is an emotional reaction, I want our customers to remember that we have been talking about what we are doing."
Mr. Mengedoth has instructed his company's 155 bank presidents to make it known that they will be in town over the New Year's holiday. And all Community First-owned branches will be open Saturday, Jan. 1.
Meanwhile, the bank is offering a blow-by-blow description of the changes it has been making. For example, a recent statement-stuffer told customers that 40 of Community First's 180 automated teller machines had had date-change problems, which have been corrected.
Whenever teller stations or ATMs pass inspection, the company pastes "Y2K O.K." stickers on them.
"Some concerned customers might not want to be confrontational, but this generates discussion," Mr. Mengedoth said.
Statewide Savings Bank, Jersey City, is using "mystery shoppers" from the thrift's audit department to make sure its tellers and other employees are Y2K-literate.
Each month, 10 workers are called and asked what year-2000 is, what the thrift is doing to prepare, and about the status of these preparations. Those who answer correctly get a $25 cash bonus.
If Statewide's 225 employees are able to rattle off answers to year-2000 questions, "customers are going to believe this bank knows what it is doing," said Michael J. Griffin, president of the $700 million-asset institution.
Other banks have turned to the media. Wilton (Conn.) Bank attracted press attention by inviting its congressman to inspect the bank's year- 2000 progress.
Rep. James H. Maloney, a Democrat and member of the House Banking Committee, attended the bank's year-2000 committee meeting and viewed results of its testing. He then held a press conference, using stacks of test print-outs as a backdrop. Three newspapers and a local cable TV channel covered the press conference.
"It was very visual, which was perfect for the press," said Nicki Brown, president and chief executive officer of the $90 million-asset bank. The piles of paper "were a concrete picture of all the work the bank is doing to make sure we are ready."
First Federal Bank in Hazleton, Pa., is another institution that got media attention. Since the $520 million-asset thrift held a briefing to explain what it was doing to prepare for 2000, it has become a resource for local reporters trying to understand the complex issue.
Being a source for the newspapers "gives people some comfort that we are well aware of the issues," said E. Lee Beard, First Federal's president.
Though the Y2K issue is serious, at least one bank is getting its message across with humor. Andover (Ohio) Bank is playing off its 115-year history to assure customers it will be ready when the calendar turns in 299 days.
"We were here through one century change, and will be here through another," the bank's literature promises.