For all the talk about Internet speed, the movement of corporate cash management services to the Net has been anything but fast.
About 25% of the 100 largest banks let their corporate customers view their account balances over the Internet, according to Ernst & Young's annual cash management study, released last week. The survey, which used a sample of 61 of the top 100 banks, also found that 17% let their customers originate transactions and only 5% transmit images of documents via the Internet.
Banks were more ambitious planners in last year's study. Forty-one percent predicted they would have information reporting over the Internet available by now; 28% said they would have transaction capabilities; and 25% predicted they would have imaging.
"Despite all the hype, Internet cash management services are not widely available," said Lawrence Forman, director of Ernst & Young's 16th annual study.
The Internet is considered the primary medium for banks to expand their cash management businesses, the study found. Smaller businesses present the greatest opportunity, Mr. Forman said, because Internet service is easier on their budgets than the direct-dial, PC-based services banks had been pushing.
But the Internet also presents new challenges, including customer service management. Small-business customers demand at least the same service as large and middle-market corporate clients, said Jane Verkouteren, senior vice president at First Union Corp.
Nonetheless, First Union, based in Charlotte, N.C., says it wants a bigger share of the smaller-business market in cash management. It recently did what it says was a successful direct-mail marketing campaign aimed at companies with less than $50 million of sales.
First Union has had headaches in serving small and large Internet customers alike. Its call center is increasingly barraged with time-consuming queries about basic information.
"Right now we do not have the service on the Internet we need -- and to the degree we will need -- to make sure we can handle the volume of service calls," Ms. Verkouteren said. First Union is looking into offering on-line self-service options.
Banklink, a Fiserv Inc. unit that provides cash management data processing services to 150 banks, said it sees demand developing slowly for on-line customer service applications. "The idea of customer service through their Web sites is a little daunting" to banks, said Banklink president Carroll Harrold. It will take time to wean businesses from more traditional telephone support services, he said.
Since last November the company has tried to sell a self-directed Internet customer service product called Member Services. No one has bought it yet.
The service took 18 months to develop and has been tested with four bank customers. Yet none has had sufficient demand from business customers to warrant its adoption, Mr. Harrold said.
"We may have been a little too early," he said. "We are just now beginning to see other industries launch this type of self-service. We still have hope for it, and we have no intention of abandoning it."