IN THE HIGH-VOLUME business of check services, automation is not an option: It's a necessary part of any bank's success strategy. But for many banks, the workplace reengineering that accompanies automation often renders the process a bust.

Not so at Crestar Bank, Richmond, Va. Over the course of the past four years, Crestar has completely revamped the way it tracks and retrieves customer transaction documents, dramatically improving the efficiency of its research department while reducing its staff by more than 25%.

"We're turning these requests around now in a four-hour period," said Jack Carey, Crestar vice president and manager of computer information delivery services. Before Crestar automated the process, Mr. Carey noted, it would take upwards of four days to fill a customer request for a copy of a check or other transaction document. "Now if yon send in a request this morning you can get back a copy this evening," he said.

Tracking down and photocopying customer transaction documents can be a labor-intensive and time-consuming process.

In the typical bank research environment, when a customer requests a copy of a check, a paper form is sent by branch personnel to the research department at the bank's operations center. Once the operations center receives the request, it is logged and assigned to a researcher, who then rummages through file drawers to track down the microfiche on which the check image is stored, scrolls through the fiche to locate the check, photocopies the front and back of the check, and cuts and staples the facsimiles together. Once the copy is created, it is sent to the requesting branch or customer.

Reconstructing a monthly account statement is an even more arduous process. h the case of Crestar, noted Mr. Carey, it has taken in the past as long as 10 days to track down all the checks written on an account and create a duplicate statement. Now, he said, it's a one-day process.

The research and retrieval process has been streamlined at Crestar through a combination of personal computer and mainframe computer systems, developed by Atlanta's Antinori Software Inc., along with optical disk storage technology from Eastman Kodak Co.

"The way investigators do their work is entirely different," explained Mr. Carey. "There's very little manual effort involved."

The result has been a substantial reduction in positions allocated to the bank's research staff--eight of the 30 positions previously assigned to records retrieval functions associated with the 13,000 copy requests and 50,000 photocopies the bank averages a month have been eliminated, said Mr. Carey.

According to David Robinson, president of CSC Index, a Cambridge, Mass.-based firm that consults on reengineering projects, staff reductions of this magnitude are to be expected in a reengineering effort. What appears to make Crestar stand out from the rest of the pack, however, is the extent to which it has been able to improve turnaround performance -- from four days to four hours -- as a result of its reengineering.

"That's the kind of change we would consider to be a true reengineering success," said Mr. Robinson.

Mr. Carey and Sanders Wyatt, assistant vice president for information systems, attribute Crestar's success to a protracted planning process that featured ample employee participation.

"We didn't jump in and try to do something before we understood it," said Mr. Wyatt. And employees were able to accustom themselves with the technology before it became a standard part of operations.

For example, Mr. Wyatt noted, when Crestar installed the first of six Antinori software systems it now runs, and began the automation of research paperwork, employees quickly accustomed themselves to the benefits of being able to process customer requests in a more expeditious manner.

"When you put in a request and get a response back immediately it makes a big difference in bow users accept changes," he said.

"The willingness of employees to take ownership of the process has made this process as success," added Mr. Carey.

Mr. Robinson concurs that employee participation early in the reengineering process helps pave the way for success.

"If you're going to reengineer a process, if you can get at least a few people in on the design team you get a better result," he said.

But not all employees cope well with changes in work procedures, particularly when those changes result in the loss of jobs.

"Some individuals who have been in their positions in a bank for several years and who have been using the same procedures for long periods of time have a difficult time accepting change," explained Antinori Software chief executive Ronald R. Antinori. "In some cases that person may be losing his or her job as a result of the change. That is the core of the problem, getting those people to accept new technology and a new way of doing business. It goes against human instinct," he added. "Success or failure in a reengineering project hinges on the ability to manage that change."

Change, of course, doesn't come cheap. Installing Antinori's check tracking and retrieval software, along with associated hardware, cost Crestar about $250,000, according to Mr. Carey. The payback, however, came rapidly -- within about six months.

Payback on the bank's investment came from staff reductions and the reduction in microfiche and associated storage space, as well as overtime savings, said Mr. Carey.

"We just couldn't get the laundry out the door in time with the procedures we had before," explained Mr. Carey. "Once we put in the Antinori system, we virtually eliminated overtime with respect to records retrieval."

To say nothing of improving customer service. As is the case with most banks, customer service is an integral part of Crestar's corporate strategy.

"We believe providing customers with good photocopies of transactions is important," said Mr. Carey. "If a customer wants a copy of a check and we tell them it will take five days to deliver that copy, it will cloud their perception of us."

"Banks are scurrying for retail accounts. Guaranteeing a certain level of service [like a one-day turnaround on check copy requests] is certainly a way for a bank to differentiate itself," observed Mike Israel, vice president of marketing at Antinori.

Looking ahead, Crestar plans to continue embracing automation, particularly in its check operations.

Crestar is one of two banks that are working with Antinori to develop a system that will help flag fraudulent checks. The fraud detection system, said Mr. Wyatt, dovetails with the bank's check tracking and retrieval system. It uses data on customer check writing that has been amassed by the bank to alert bank personnel when a check that has been presented for payment doesn't jibe with a customer's check writing habits. Items that are flagged can then be examined more closely.

Mr. Carey also plans to expand the bank's check research and retrieval capabilities to further reduce human intervention -- in effect putting the entire process on-line. Ultimately, he said, a customer should be able to walk up to an automated teller machine, order a check photocopy, and receive it at home within a day.

It's a simple matter of customer service.

"Customer service is our most important strategy," Mr. Carey said. At a Glance CRESTAR BANK Headquarters Richmond, Va.Assets $14.3 millionEmployees 7,200Checking accounts 640,000Hardware International Business Machines Corp. mainframe and personal computers Kodak ImageLink Digital workstationsSoftware Antinori Systems Inc. customer tracking and research systems

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