A year after NationsBank Corp. introduced banking by personal computer, the program still faces technical and operational problems.
Bill payments are sometimes completed late, and the bank is having trouble dealing with an unexpectedly high volume of transactions and requests for technical support.
NationsBank executives said the program is a victim of its own success and vowed to resolve the problems quickly. People in home banking programs at other institutions said they are learning from NationsBank's experience.
Since March 1, 1996, when the Charlotte, N.C., institution introduced PC banking through Managing Your Money software, the response far exceeded expectations.
The service has attracted 320,000 customers-one of the biggest home banking enrollments in the industry-even though it has been available nationally only since December.
But the good news ends there.
The bank's support staff has proven far too small to handle the volume of orders, inquiries, transactions, and technical questions, bank officials said. Additional workers are being trained and added, but customer questions and complaints continue to flow in.
"We have had to throttle back, reduce some of the advertising, do some other things that would just allow us to suppress demand temporarily," said Richard J. Parsons, president of NationsBank's direct banking unit.
The company's archrival sees the experience as a cautionary tale.
"We want to take it slow," said John R. Georgius, vice chairman of First Union Corp., which plans to introduce a PC banking program next month. "We're trying to pace ourselves."
NationsBank is one of six owners of Meca Software LP, the Stamford, Conn., company that makes Managing Your Money. Two other Meca owners-Fleet Financial Group and BankAmerica Corp.-have rolled out similar, "own- branded" home banking programs based on the software.
"Based on what we learned from NationsBank and B of A, we have a series of contingency plans for a variety of different enrollment volumes," said David Fingerman, vice president of interactive banking at Fleet. "They advised us that if there was one thing to pay attention to when you're rolling out a PC banking program, it's customer service support."
Senior NationsBank executives consider their PC program a great success but admit they have taken some lumps.
"It was difficult to experience 100% growth over 60 days," said Janey A. Place, executive vice president of NationsBanc Services Inc. "How do we deal with explosive customer acceptance of a product? We're building an infrastructure."
On the positive side, she said, "As we decide to add more and more access devices, we'll be able to plug into that infrastructure and it will be much, much easier each time we do that."
In the near term, though, the bank is trying to be up-front with customers. Those who call for technical support are warned they will probably be on hold for five minutes; those who order the home banking software are told it may not arrive for three to four weeks.
For more serious problems-such as when bill payments are late- NationsBank is working with its vendors and transaction processors to head off customer-alienating delays.
Mark Kuxhausen, customer relations manager at NationsBank's on-line banking center in Dallas, acknowledged other problems that need attention: the Georgia call center does not roll over calls to the PC banking center reliably; some customers have been assessed the $5.95 monthly fee for bill payment even when they haven't used the service; some customers have had bill payments debited from their accounts on the day the payment was ordered, rather than when the biller received it.
The Dallas center has almost 100 staffers and plans to add 50 in the next six months. Two dozen people are currently in training classes, and employees from newly acquired Boatmen's Bancshares will be added.
Even so, Mr. Kuxhausen said, the volume of inquiries has been staggering: in January, the Dallas center had to respond to 3,000 telephone calls, 6,000 E-mail messages from PC banking customers, and more than 1,000 Internet E-mail messages that came in through NationsBank's Web site.
"We just have to do the best we can," Mr. Kuxhausen said.
Smita Quinn, channel manager for PC banking, said the high numbers spoke to the pent-up demand for computer-based home banking.
"People are ready for it, and there's a group of customers out there who use it very frequently," she said. "Any time you have more volume than you expect, you've got a lot of work to do."
Paul D. Harrison, president and chief executive officer of Meca Software, said of NationsBank's experience: "Clearly the demand was greater than any of us expected. I think the first lesson we learned was that the consumer likes having their financial institution provide them with that product."