Amid all the current talk about the Internet and advanced modes of electronic commerce, bankers' faith in the power of the telephone apparently has no bounds.

Most surveyed by Payment Systems Inc. for this year's American Banker technology survey said they were either enhancing their call-center operations, or intended to do so in the near future. Respondents said telephone banking would become even more popular than it is today.

Among the top 300 banks, 60% said they offer telephone banking, and 84% said they plan to do so by 1998.

Just under half of community banks now have telephone banking options, but 85% of those that don't said they would be phasing it in over the next two years.

"The phone is the thing that people are very comfortable with, and with that comfort level, it's going to continue to be a significant factor," said David Donaldson, first vice president of retail operations and electronic banking at Comerica Bank in Detroit.

"I don't believe we as an industry have fully utilized the telephone," he said.

At Comerica, as at most larger banks, the game plan is to offer access through many devices and let customers have the final say. Mr. Donaldson predicted that banking via personal computer would grow steadily, but he cautioned that "people's habits don't change that easily."

"The Internet is so new that there are not a lot of customers out there," he said. "The Internet is certainly going to have an influence. But with the sheer numbers of telephones that are out there, and the ease people have with using the phone, it's going to take a long time to migrate from the phone to the PC."

Reflecting the attitude of many bankers who don't want to place their remote-banking eggs in one basket, Mr. Donaldson added, "We want to make sure we can play in any of those games."

As technology advances, the very definition of the telephone is evolving. "Smart" phones with data screens are coming out with advanced transactional and computing capacity, and many bankers believe the devices will heighten the demand for telephone banking.

"Today, there are roughly 20 million consumers transacting by telephone and maybe one million by PC, and we think it becomes a dead heat in two or three years," said Daniel M. Schley, chief executive of Home Financial Network in Westport, Conn. His company produces home banking software geared for the mass market.

Mr. Schley predicted telephone banking will "not be eclipsed in any big way" by computer banking.

"The touch-tone market will evolve to the point where a high-end smart phone and a low-end PC will be virtually indistinguishable," he said.

According to the American Banker survey, screen telephones will make modest gains in the years ahead, with the aura of a somewhat marginal product, especially at community banks.

The results indicated that 5% of the top 300 banks will offer screen-phone banking (versus virtually no community banks), and 35% plan to do so in the future (compared with 15% of community banks).

Screen phones have taken their knocks over the years, and some bankers have dismissed them as obsolete or off the mark.

"The only chance the screen phone has is if it adopts a stripped- down Web browser interface, and you're starting to see that," said William Soward, director of application marketing for Edify Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif.

A few banks are looking to television as a mass-market delivery vehicle for electronic banking - some more seriously than others. Barnett Banks Inc. in Jacksonville, Fla., recently began an interactive television pilot in conjunction with Time Warner Cable. The results may produce insights into the market for such a service.

That said, Barnett is hedging with a PC bet.

Factors affecting the adoption of interactive banking will include the quality of the customer interface, the time it takes to download screen images, and the capacity of networks, said Catherine Corby, Barnett's director of home banking and electronic commerce. New, cross-functional devices also will play into the mix.

"We're starting to see, already, TV sets that have PCs built into them," Ms. Corby said. "We expect that by 1998, that's still going to be in the early adopter phase."

Banks questioned for American Banker by Payment Systems Inc. were asked to differentiate among direct PC-banking, on-line services, and the Internet, but many bankers and consultants said the distinctions are blurring. "Electronic banking" is becoming a catch-all term.

"Once security issues are hammered out, I think you'll see a lot of banks leapfrogging directly to an Internet option," said Cheryl O'Donoghue, director of marketing at Financial Training Resources in Lombard, Ill., a bank consulting firm. "They'll brand themselves on the Internet."

Ms. O'Donoghue said voice-response units and call centers could help banks reinforce the brands and personalities that set them apart from competitors.

"In the past, it's been the image of the tellers on Main Street," said William T. Gregor, senior vice president of Gemini Consulting in Cambridge, Mass. "Increasingly, it's going to be a different set of images."

An August report by Forrester Research, also of Cambridge, predicted that on-line banking would grow from 1.1 million U.S. households today to 9.7 million in five years.

It also concluded that Internet banking would overtake private dial- up access by 1999, and that banks would profit more from selling new accounts than by charging fees for remote-access services.

In the American Banker survey, 37% of the top 300 banks said they had installed largely automated "mini-branches" (compared with 27% of community banks), and 8% of all banks said they maintain self-service kiosks. Also, 4% said they have installed automated loan machines.

"If anything, the future is going to bring more diverse ways to access banking and other financial services," Mr. Gregor said. "That's what you're seeing with the branches, mini-branches, supermarket branches, and electronic branches with ATMs and video."

Smart cards, cable modem access, and advanced-function ATMs are also on the radar screens of most forward-thinking banks. The aim of such experiments is to capture consumers' loyalty and pocketbooks by making their banking easy and customized.

"We try to use technology to deliver personalized service as much as possible," said Robert P. Shay Jr., director of self-service banking at Bank of Boston Corp. "You can't serve a million and a half customers by giving each one a personal banker."

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