Washington Mutual is mulling ways to present a unified front to its loan customers.

The nation's biggest thrift is planning to reconfigure its back office so that prospective debtors will not be able to tell whether a loan is made by the parent institution or one of its two subprime units.

We are trying to prevent a customer having to ask for products or services and jumping through hoops, said Craig J. Chapman, president and chief executive officer of the thrift's consumer finance subsidiary, Aristar. We are looking for a business process that offers seamless service wherever the customer walks in and whatever kind of loan they are eligible for.

Currently, customers with tarnished credit histories are asked to visit or call a branch of Blazer Financial Services, City Finance, or any of the other brands that Aristar operates, rather than going into a Washington Mutual branch.

But Mr. Chapman is hoping to change this. He said Washington Mutual has decided that the current method of referring customers to other areas of the organization is not effective.

The customer shouldn't have to worry about where the loan is coming from, he said. If it is determined that a customer doesn't have the qualification to sit on Washington Mutual's balance sheet, then we can underwrite it on Aristar or Long Beach's portfolio.

Other banks and thrifts that offer a panoply of products have succeeded in making referral systems work. For example, the former Norwest Corp., which bought Wells Fargo & Co. and took its name in November, has gained a reputation for successfully cross-selling among its various subsidiaries.

But Seattle-based Washington Mutual has found such shuffling of customers problematic. For one thing, a large proportion of the thrift's consumer finance offices are in the South, far from the core franchise of the $174.3 billion-asset thrift.

And by keeping a myriad of subsidiary brands active, the company loses out at least partially on the millions of dollars it doles out marketing the parent company's name, Mr. Chapman said.

Washington Mutual spent a lot of money on branding and advertising, Mr. Chapman said.

A change in strategy could pay off handsomely for Washington Mutual, observers said. The bank has signed up a large number of customers -- many of whom may be candidates for subprime loans -- with its flagship free checking product.

Wamu figured out a way to capture a rapidly growing segment of the consumer market, said R. Jay Tejera, an analyst at Ragen MacKenzie Inc. in Seattle. As a stand-alone unit, Aristar would always have been the tail on the dog. The trick is using its products by leveraging the Wamu brand.

Mr. Chapman's plan would avoid the risk of losing customers by referring them to another department or unit of the company.

With referrals, you can really fumble the handoff of a customer, Mr. Tejera said. If your consumer finance guy doesn't call your customer back for two days, it's a problem.

Chapman wants to put in a back-office system where a chimp could do this kind of thing, he added.

Washington Mutual is planning to wait until October to start adopting these changes. That is when its deal to buy subprime mortgage lender Long Beach Financial Corp. is set to close.

Mr. Chapman said he expects to have the project sewn up by the end of 2000.

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