Community bank trust officers are spending the majority of their time tending to back-office concerns instead of working with clients.

According to a new study sponsored by SEI Corp. - a provider of mutual fund and trust services to banks - 70% of senior trust officers at 270 community banks said they spend less than half their time on customer service.

The results of the survey come as community banks tout their intimate rapport with clients as a selling point.

The survey was conducted by a Cambridge, Mass.-based research firm, ABT Associates. The research firm didn't disclose to those polled that SEI sponsored the study, to avoid influencing the survey results.

The survey's assessment doesn't surprise community bankers.

"It's a constant struggle to get in front of clients and be freed of shuffling papers," said James D. Weaver, a trust officer at Wayne County National Bank, Wooster, Ohio.

This past year, Mr. Weaver's bank, which oversees a total of $216 million in trust assets, came up with a solution: A bank official acts as a liaison between the back office and the trust officers.

"You may think you're doing a wonderful job for the client behind the scenes, crossing the T's and dotting the I's," Mr. Weaver said. But he believes that clients are more impressed with face-to-face contact.

When asked what major problems stem from their back offices, 43% of the trust managers said accounting systems were not used properly.

Consequently, trust officers find themselves sitting in the back office helping operations staff who are not experts in trust services.

Richard B. Lieb, the president of SEI's investment systems and services division, said back-office personnel at small banks might lack knowledge of the trust business needed to handle a problem without deferring to a senior officer.

"Trust systems are filled with nuances, and you need a broad background," Mr. Lieb said.

The second-biggest problem the survey respondents cited is having to spend time answering complaints from customers about their statements.

Mr. Lieb said community bank trust statements lack the reader- friendliness of larger bank statements. "Trust department statements are from the Stone Age," Mr. Lieb said.

SEI suggests that trust departments at community banks throw in the towel and completely outsource back-office operations and systems.

"Our vision is that they outsource, theoretically to us, because we have the knowledge to meet their needs," Mr. Lieb said.

That may not be the answer for everyone, according to Ann M. Grochala, director of bank operations at the Independent Bankers Association of America, who said small banks have to make that decision for themselves.

Approximately 25% of the trade group's 5,500 members have trust activities, but Ms. Grochala says that does not mean a full-fledged department.

She said many operations staffers at community banks account for various activities other than trust, and it's likely they would tap the shoulder of a trust officer for help.

"Because small banks have limited staffs, they typically aren't able to devote one person to one function," she said.

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