It kind off started slow and tapered off from there," says Steve Vaughan, a speaker at BAI's National Conference on Community Bank Technology, describing the event, held in Orlando, FL, in late September.

A vendor, who asked to remain anonymous, described attendance more bluntly: "It sucks."

A BAI spokesperson estimated-perhaps a tad optimistically-that 200 bankers were in attendance, along with 98 exhibitors.

Vaughan, president and chief executive officer of $50 million-asset Texas National Bank located in Tomball, TX, says despite good organization and location, attendance looked poor.

Nevertheless, the slim crowd of bankers, vendors, and consultants were treated to insightful presentations on new banking technologies. Bankers faced a particularly wide array of "solutions" for Internet banking, customer relationship management (CRM) and document imaging.

Daniel Burrus, author and founder of Burrus Research Associates Inc., a consultancy based in Hartford, WI, delivered the keynote address on the second day of the conference, offering bankers an entertaining supply of anecdotes and quips, in addition to predictions, such as the advent of interactive digital documents. He shared his views without reservation.

"We don't opportunity-manage; we crisis-manage," says Burrus, referring to the financial services industry as a whole.

He stresses that bankers must anticipate problems and attempt to solve them preemptively.

Burrus says that despite all of the discussions about the Internet as a delivery channel, banks will make money selling the knowledge gleaned from Web transactions to companies against which they do not compete, rather than profiting significantly on the transactions themselves.

He compared the Internet environment of today to the Gold Rush of the 19th century.

"The miners didn't get rich," Burrus says. "Those who sold the picks and shovels got rich."

Michelle Schewe, senior associate for Murphy & Company, an Iowa City-based bank consulting firm, also made a presentation at the conference. Her discussion focused on bill presentment, portals and marketing, as well as online banking for small business customers.

Schewe advocates removing barriers customers perceive with respect to online banking. She also suggests banks develop relationship-based pricing.

In a separate interview, she said that while portals may be overblown, "they provide the framework for future growth-and that's online bill presentment."

"There's a sense of urgency," Schewe says about electronic bill presentment, "that if we don't do it today, we're going to be behind the eight ball."

She adds that e-bill pay needs an infrastructure, similar to what the U.S. Postal Service has for paper-based mail. And like other speakers at the BAI conference, she believes consumers' trust in their banks makes those financial institutions' sites a useful place for bill aggregation.

On the CRM front, another presenter encouraged bankers to take advantage of what technology offers.

"Customer relationship profitability is hot," says Jerry Weiner, chairman and chief executive officer of IPS Sendero, headquartered in Norcross, GA, and a business unit of Milwaukee-based Fiserv Inc. IPS Sendero provides technology, educational materials and consulting services. Weiner spoke at the conference about enterprise-wide profitability measurement for community banks.

He says banks need to understand more clearly the buying behavior of their customers and how to benefit from CRM. Bankers can do this very simply.

"The bottom line is," Weiner says, "they can ask, 'Why did you buy this particular product from us?'"

He rejects the oft-touted 80/20 notion: that a bank should focus on the 20% of its customers who are most profitable to the institution.

"If a customer's not profitable, it's not the customer's fault. It's the bank's responsibility," says Weiner, wolfing down a hamburger before rushing to the airport.

Another conference speaker, Richard Orr, is senior vice president at Banknorth Group Inc., a Portland, ME, holding company with total assets of $18.9 billion. He spoke about call center management in community banks.

"Customers without problems will not call you," Orr says.

In an interview later, he discussed his organization's call centers. Banknorth established two call centers to create redundancy for events such as technical failures and personnel shortages in a geographic area. Incoming calls are routed to a particular location and agent based on the needed skill set.

His agents are not necessarily jacks-of-all-trades, but rather specialists in various areas, allowing for better training and the development of career paths within the organization, in addition to better service for customers.

Murray Hill, NJ-based Lucent Technologies has equipped Orr's call centers with hardware, and they use software from Aspect Communications, based in San Jose, CA.

Orr attended the conference with his 10-year old daughter, Elizabeth, who stated that she spends much of her Internet time listening to music on the notorious Napster site and visiting Ty.com, home of the Beanie Baby.

In contrast with the hubbub among her father's banking peers, Elizabeth's friends do not discuss the Internet. For her generation, the Web's existence is taken for granted.

The youngster says that she sees no particular need for tellers in the future, as Internet banking will suffice for her needs. And despite the cajoling of her father, Elizabeth coolly dismissed the importance of a call center.

Her opinion of the Internet may carry lessons for community bankers that are just as important as what they heard during the speeches: "It's just there," she says quietly.

The Internet triggered the usual banter about the future of financial services. Burrus asserts that the overwhelming number of bank Web sites diminishes their significance to a certain extent.

"What's the competitive edge if everybody's got one?" he asks rhetorically.

Whether it gives an edge or not, he still sees enormous value in the Internet for the financial services industry.

BankZip.com is one of the many vendors that wouldn't exist without the Web. The company purports to be the world's first Internet banking alliance.

George Cooper, regional manager, says BankZip.com targets community banks, up to about $2 billion in assets. The company enables smaller institutions to implement an Internet banking presence by building the Web pages and applications necessary for online banking.

Members also receive the benefit of a call center staffed 24/7 and BankZip.com's marketing campaign. It currently has 22 member banks. Internet users find the institutions on the Web by searching BankZip.com by zip code.

Cooper says one of his client banks found the online loan system so efficient, it began using the system internally.

The portal concept also generated a substantial amount of discussion at the conference. FundsXpress and FISI-Madison Financial, based in Nashville, TN, were promoting Portana, a new portal product designed for banks. It provides a financial institution with a customizable, database-driven Web site with opportunities for ad revenue and commissions on products sold from some large ecommerce sites. The program costs a one-time fee based on the bank's asset size, which covers set-up, training and printed marketing materials.

Document imaging was a hot topic, at least among the vendors promoting those products. It seems paper-based documents will not live forever, and checks absolutely must be made available online now.

And here again, the generation gap comes into play.

"If you're over 40, you're kind of looking forward to getting your canceled checks back," says Burrus. "If you're under 30, you're wondering why they're sending me these checks back."

Carlos Rodriguez of Eras JV, located in Miami, was promoting his company's browser-based imaging products, including iStat.Email, a program that generates image statements in HTML or Adobe Acrobat formats.

Kevin Keener from Rochester, NY-based Eastman Kodak Co., demonstrated two of Kodak's document imaging machines. The Document Archive Writer, Model 4800, converts digital documents to an analog format and onto microfilm. In what seems to bring documents full circle, its Intelligent Microimage Scanner takes analog documents and converts them to a digital format.

James Jackson, director of marketing services for Cupertino, CA- based Ricoh Silicon Valley Inc., was showing the company's new eCabinet product. A compact piece of hardware, eCabinet looks perfect for setting a cup of coffee on. However, Jackson says it offers the easiest way to capture, sort and retrieve documents in the bank.

"All of the other document imaging systems are software-based," says Jackson, in contrast with eCabinet, which is compatible with existing hardware and software in the bank. Its access for document retrieval is all browser-based.

Peter Ku, director of banking applications for Sagent, based in Mountain View, CA, wants to help community banks pull information together to develop a "customer-centric view." He says that bankers should understand that CRM "is a process versus an application." Alan Sanderson, spokesperson for Verbind Inc., was promoting his company's Real-Time Intelligent Marketing, a CRM product designed to work with existing systems in the bank to track, analyze and act on customer behavior.

"Customer service should be proactive, not reactive-after a customer has left the bank," says Sanderson.

Stephen Ryan of BISYS Banking Solutions, based in Cherry Hill, NJ, says that Bisys' new product, Total CRM, helps banks mine their customer databases for account opportunities.

Prince Varma, senior vice president of Amherst, NY-based Inspired Design, claims that his company's products bring disparate systems together and help separate lines of business within the bank communicate. New York-based Jemtech Solutions, a Web-based application service provider, wants to turn banks into paperless organizations with its document management program. At a conference replete with high-tech vendor give-a-ways, Jemtech offered tree seedlings at its booth.

Regardless of vendor enthusiasm for their respective technologies and the overall technological tone of the conference, bankers varied in their responses to the products and services available to them.

"Unless it affects the bottom line or we are driven to it by customer demand, why do it?" says James Collins of $250 million-asset Bank of New Albany, based in Albany, MS.

Over bad food and warm soda, bankers discussed online cash management services for their business customers as an important element in the near future, observing a particular demand for sweep accounts.

Sanderson of Verbind takes strong exception to what he views as the most egregious shortcoming of BAI's conference: "They took the Haagan Daas cart away too quickly."

Lynn Koller is a business writer in Ormond Beach, FL.

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