Client/server technology is the medium helping Union Bank improve its product message. With a planned rollout of a new branch-wide system based on the technology, the $16 billion asset bank expects to revamp the way platform sales staff convey information about new products and services. Under the San Francisco bank's existing system, new account representatives have to explain a broad range of products during a sales session with a customer, and also must set up the selected account an unwieldy and time-consuming process. These conditions cut into time that could be spent selling other products or handling other tasks, bank officials said. The new client/server system, which will be tested at one site before being rolled out to all 206 Union branches, is designed to make some key changes in the sales process. The plan is to equip each branch with a local area network of personal computers running IBM's OS/2 operating system and Broadway & Seymour's BancStar Prism bank application software. It will replace Union's IBM 4700 platform system, which the bank developed in-house. The newly integrated environment will provide access to multiple bank systems while maintaining centralized and decentralized information for branch-level end users. The project will also affect teller stations and a central customer service unit that opens accounts and sells products over the telephone. The technological shift represents a move away from a text-based system to a point-and-click environment associated with Microsoft Windows. The new system will include a graphical user interface to lead users through the system without the need to memorize commands. The reformatted data screens will provide more easily accessible and readable information on an array of products, including checking and savings accounts, trust and investments, bank cards, and installment and mortgage lending. The system also gives the sales staff the ability to highlight product sets that best match the needs of a prospective customer. With information more clearly organized, platform officers can better communicate the features of the bank's diverse product mix and help customers make the decision that's right for them. This, according to Rick Hartnack, vice chairman of Union Bank and head of the bank's community banking operations, will make some important adjustments to the selling process. There are several features associated with any particular checking account, Mr. Hartnack said. By the time the new accounts person has explained what amounts to three to six different accounts, the client ends up saying, 'just tell me the one to have.' A choice made from frustration or information overload does not generally lead to satisfied customers, he said. This new approach will really engage the client in the selection process, Mr. Hartnack said. If they understand the choice they've made, their expectations are much more accurate and there won't be any mysteries or surprises later on. After a customer makes a decision, the system's efficiency kicks in on another level. From the time a client walks in to the time they walk out with an (automated teller machine) card and some checks, it takes about 45 minutes, Mr. Hartnack said. After that the customer isn't thinking about buying three or four more products. They're thinking about getting to their car before it's ticketed or getting back to work before their lunch hour is over. Union hopes eventually to get the process down to 10 minutes with the help of some automatic features. For example, the client/server system performs automatic credit and background checks. Under the present system, a sales person has to telephone for this information while the client sits and waits. The system also saves time and cuts down on typing errors by eliminating the need to rekey certain information when the customer already has an account. For all new accounts, the system also provides a follow-up notebook/tickler file for when an application is put on hold while a customer tracks down some missing piece of information. When the customer returns two days later, all the information gathered from the first session is still right there, said Charlie Pedersen, executive vice president of Union's bank operations and automation group. Some other rewards Union expects to reap from what will likely be an $8 million to $10 million investment are faster training of new employees and improved service to existing customers. When a customer now asks for service, the financial service representative has to go through a labyrinth of screens making little arcane commands, Mr. Hartnack said. The new system will enable them to get to the heart of the matter much more quickly. Platform staff, for example, can access customer information by name, account number, a social security number, or a card swipe. The system is expected to be just as efficient in transmitting data as it will be in receiving it. After the sales process is complete, documents such as signature cards or disclosure statements can be transferred to the appropriate bank departments electronically, faster than interoffice mail. While banks have become adept at serving customers who rarely step into a branch, the system is actually an attempt to make those who have made the effort feel more welcome. Union is trying to do a good job of being a quality, personal, touch-and- feel kind of bank, Mr. Hartnack said. We're trying to improve the relationship between the banker and the customer at the point of physical contact. While Union prepares for the big change, the gears are already turning with other ideas for future applications. We can reengineer what we're using on the platform to a self-service environment where customers can learn about a product's features and benefits on their own, Mr. Pedersen said. In the meantime, the system is already promising some important benefits for internal operations. It will give us the impetus to maintain administrative oversight of software changes on a completely automated basis, he said. A centralized help desk, for example, will be able to view the same screens of the user community. Union is also committed to client/server processing for other applications and plans to use separate systems for document imaging and commercial lending. Yet, like most banks, Union doesn't consider the technology the monolithic answer for all its needs. This is a wise approach, according to Diogo Teixeira, president of the Tower Group in Wellesley, Mass. There are a lot of wrinkles that everybody has to learn about, Mr. Teixeira said of client/server computing. It's a very immature technology. One effect of its immaturity, he said, relates to the ability to assert control over software and data. It's much more of an effort than most people think it is, and the underlying software you might buy on the market is not industrial strength. Mr. Pedersen said Union is well aware of how client/server systems alter the data security landscape. If the entire infrastructure of the bank is dependent on the mainframe, it is similar to a glass house, he said. By integrating the mainframe with client/server systems using PC-LAN technology, we're creating 200 glass condominiums and the same fragility that existed in the glass house will now exist throughout the enterprise. So it's important that we have the right system infrastructure to support it. And of course, Union believes its choice is the right one. One of the reasons we chose IBM's OS/2 is because it is so robust, Mr. Pedersen said. It's sort of the industrial strength of PC-LAN applications. And Union is certainly a good one to put it to the test. Its branches process 48 million checks, 2 million ATM transactions and 500,000 telephone banking calls a month, not to mention $5 billion of wire transfers each day. Ms. Monahan is a freelance writer based in New York.
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