If you are the manager responsible for a bank's cash management product line, it's a good chance your biggest concern is making information reporting and call centers Web-enabled.

All banks offering cash management services have some form of information reporting as their lead product. From its roots as a manual and free offering, it changed in the 1970s and '80s into an automated, paid service made available through timesharing networks. In the mid-'90s banks began migrating to Internet versions.

The early-adopter banks have online products in production, and many more are in various stages of preparing to offer them. Of the top 250 U.S. banks, fewer than 100 had Internet cash management systems in production by yearend 2000; it is estimated that more than 200 of the top 250 will be offering them by the end of this year.

Most major banks have stated objectives of "encouraging" their customers to convert from predecessor information reporting systems. Why?

The first is simply pressure to remain competitive by offering the products the marketplace deems "state-of-the-art." The marketplace's broad acceptance of the Web is driving companies to take several products online. Banks believe, rightly or wrongly, that positive image translates to increased market share in cash management.

The second is the need to boost profitability by applying new technology. Subscriptions to information reporting services have risen dramatically at major banks - to the point that large cash management banks find themselves managing portfolios of more than 10,000 customers. While this suggests large revenues, it also represents a large mass of customers requiring support.

Costs of technical support for cash management services have risen dramatically, since banks normally need to keep a certain ratio of technical support personnel to end-users. The largest need: distribution and support of end-user PC software for information reporting services and to initiate transactions. Users of online systems have just as many customer inquiries to handle but eliminate the need to distribute and support software, because all the end-user needs is one of the popular Web browsers. For the bank this translates to lower staffing and costs.

Web-based information reporting addresses both needs. When a bank announces to its customer base and prospects that it has this product, it burnishes its image. More important, moving the customer base over to the Web-based product lowers support costs.

The typical bank's cash management call center is made up of teams dedicated to specific customer groups. Frequently, one or more "high touch" teams serve the most profitable customers, and the less profitable one get less attention.

These employees usually work in cubicles, equipped with PCs and telephone headsets They are trained to handle a set of questions or problems that come up frequently, but some of these can't be handled while the customer is on the phone, because the technology is lacking. That means follow-up, including a phone call to the customer, is needed.

Two tools can help to solve this problem: a middleware component with custom integration links to the desired legacy systems, and a desktop portal through which team members can access the required systems and hence respond faster to customer requests.

Middleware component: Once the bank identifies its service team members' requirements, a custom link is built to a legacy system in order to enable the worker to find the necessary information or complete that transaction.

Desktop portal: Each worker's desktop has an icon that corresponds to each of the custom links to legacy systems through the middleware component. Each icon is a Java applet that launches one of the custom-developed functions.

Using these tools improves productivity and customer satisfaction and reduces training time for new call center employees.

Mr. Sapienza is a banking consultant with International Business Machines Corp., Armonk, N.Y.

Note to Readers

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