ALTHOUGH SEATTLE-FIRST BANK does not claim to know what the branch of the future is going to look like, management thinks it has a developed a foundation of technology to react to consumers' ever-changing tastes.

The $16 billion-asset subsidiary of BankAmerica Corp. has pursued an aggressive program to redesign and update its 280 branches to meet its current demands, while preparing for future customer desires. It has also put in place plans to reduce paper, improve customer service, and perfect teller training.

"We felt commercial banks had not pushed the teller system technology as far as they could, to make the systems as efficient as possible," said Victoria Mabus, vice president and manager of retail automation. "We decided to look at the teller process from a 'birth to death' point of view to enable us to design and implement a system that redesigned the way our tellers conduct business and pushed the technology to the maximum level."

Innovative branch automation is something Seafirst, as the bank is commonly known, has pursued for decades. The bank installed its first branch automation system in the late 1970s as it saw the need to automate teller functions. "The first system we installed lasted us quite some time but the problem was that it was built on a foundation that was no longer manufactured," said Ms. Mabus. "As we continued to grow through acquisitions and new branch openings, there was not enough equipment out there on the secondary market to continue to put the hardware into the branches."

In 1991, after management realized that its current system would not continue to meet its needs, it signed an agreement with Olivetti North America Inc. to enter a partnership to design new branch technology.

Ms. Mabus said the agreement with Olivetti called for the design of a system that would consist of new hardware and the implementation of teller software that was modeled on existing bank applications.

"The first stage of the development was to clone all of our existing functions onto Olivetti's Pinnacle Plus branch automation system, which was completed in early 1992," she said. "We used the cloned system to absorb the 80 branches we acquired through the Security Pacific merger."

In late 1992, management embarked on a plan to reengineer the way Seafirst tellers do their jobs.

"We took a look at the operation from the time the client gives us the transaction to what the teller does with it and what the central areas do with the processing, and redesigned the functions to make them flow more smoothly," said Ms. Mabus. "We decided the best thing to do was to come up with a system that gave every aspect of our operation better access to transaction information."

Seafirst formed a team -- including a core group of 20 bank staffers -- that worked on designing the system to determine what it required.

"We also organized a team called our teller automation group in January of 1993," said Ms. Mabus. "These were folks from the branches including tellers and managers, people who actually had their hands on the teller system on a daily basis.

"By getting these people involved, we were able get insightful information about functionality that needed to be in place and weed out those functions which were not beneficial," she continued. "It also went along way to promoting enthusiasm in the user community for the system."

Seafirst started to work with Olivetti system designers in early 1993, once it had completed developing the requirements for the system internally.

Some of the goals the bank set for the new system were the ability to reduce paper internally, reduce teller learning curves, and improve customer service.

Through the summer of 1993, Olivetti worked on building a system that met the specifications and delivered the test software in December. The new system provides the tellers with added functionality at the teller station. That functionality, in ram, provides customers with faster, more efficient, and more effective service.

The new system also provides clearer documentation for both tellers and customers. In the past, said Ms. Mabus, customer receipts "consisted of a single line of information, which was somewhat confusing to read." The new receipts feature simple words and offer more information about the transaction than the old receipts did. Tellers now are able to link transactions together to speed up the time customers spend at the window.

"Tellers are now able to provide customers with a single receipt for multiple transactions," said Ms. Mabus. "Before we would issue a single receipt for each transaction which meant if they performed three transactions, they received three slips of paper as receipts." The bank has also changed the procedure tellers use for issuing and printing teller checks. Once the items are approved, the tellers are able to generate the checks from a document printer rather than using forms or other conventional methods.

"The tellers enter the information on screen, make sure it is all correct, and then print it out on the laser printer," said Ms. Mabus. "It is a big time savings in addition to a form savings function.

"The old way we did it required four- or six ply forms and spoilage was very high," she continued. "By performing the function through the teller system, we have been able to reduce errors significantly."

The bank has also developed a "Host Electronic Journal" that keeps track of all of the teller transactions for a 60-day period.

Seafirst has also added a function that links compound transactions together. If a customer comes into the bank and needs to get $50 in cash, $75 in travelers checks, and $100 in foreign currency, all of the functions can be done in one transaction.

"In the past, the teller would have to perform different functions to complete the transaction," said Ms. Mabus.

Andrew Mayer, a senior manager at Ernst & Young, praised the Seafirst system. "They have built a system that is customer focused and will handle transactions and further enable the branch personnel to adapt to the changing role of the branches in the industry," he said. "It will give the tellers the right tools for the future as the industry changes and more and more services are being offered at the branch and traditional transactions decrease." Seafirst management agrees.

"The system provides the teller with everything needed to complete all of the possible transactions," said Kenneth Viafore, senior vice president of information systems. "Our old system did not provide the teller with the intuitive prompts to help them through the functions, which resulted in higher errors than we thought were acceptable.

"By giving the tellers instructions, we have been able to reduce errors and speed up the process of completing the transactions," he continued. "The system walks the tellers through the functions, reducing errors significantly."

The bank plans to complete the rollout-- which was started earlier this year -- by the end of October.

When it is completed, Ms. Mabus said, the bank will see immediate paper savings to the tune of 800,000 to 900,000 pieces a month -- or 3.6% of its total volume.

"The system was designed with longevity in mind and with scalability, so that hardware and operating systems are fully compatible with the direction of the bank for years to come," said Mr. Viafore.

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