No one can be involved in banking today without giving serious attention to the role of the Internet.

I know several top bankers who privately say that the Internet will probably have little effect on their institutions but who nevertheless have established Web sites and are offering as much computer-initiated banking as anyone.

Why? It is a sign they are up-to-date. If they do not offer Internet service, customers may wonder what else they neglected.

But even community banks that are not quite ready to go on the Web can take some steps to provide the convenience of Web banking.

Consider the services that other banks offer on the Web. Consider whether you can't be provided in another way. Also, consider whether they are really worth providing.

Internet banking articles talk about eliminating the snail-mailing of bills, the writing of check to cover them, and customer worries about late payments and late charges.

Is this new?

A quarter-century ago, banks and thrifts were offering automatic bill paying over the phone.

A second alternative to Web bill payment is direct debit, which in my area is called ZipCheck.

I have six bills a month, for utilities and phone service, that still come in just as they used to except that now I don't have to respond. With ZipCheck I look them over and make sure I'm satisfied, and then I just keep track of the date when the money will be removed from my account.

That's it. If there is an error, I have plenty of time to correct it.

(Incidentally, I have never seen a bank promote ZipCheck -- only the utilities do. Yet banks benefit from it just as much.)

Some of the other purported advantages of home banking don't seem all that valuable.

For example, articles on the topic feature people at the airport who suddenly remember they need to open a new account at a different bank, so they take out the trusty old laptop and do it right there.

Sure, it looks dramatic -- but I wouldn't count on grabbing many new customers this way.

Furthermore, the Web omits a key feature of traditional banking: seeing a human being, with luck someone the customer knows.

Customers find it comforting to bank in an actual building with an FDIC label on the door and helpful people being inside.

It also has value for the bank. All of us talk about cross-selling, but isn't a platform officer with information about the customer more likely to cross-sell than an ad on the Internet?

Carry it a step further. Your richest customers use the vault -- after all, they can't lock up their securities or jewels on the Internet -- so vault employees greet your best prospects on a regular basis.

Training vault reps to help cross-sell services would probably do as much as some of the new Web services to boost the bottom line.

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