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BA Was Strong On IT From The Get-Go

basitSpeeding along the road to recovery from years of support problems and end-user revolts, Bank of America’s information center has opened four new retail stores that sell software, cabling and services — but only to the bank’s end users.

The concept of an in-house retail chain as the distributor of end-user products has been tried and has failed at other major corporations. But after a month of operations at Bank of America, users and information-center (IC) managers alike think this one is going to be a success.

“This is one of the ways we’re letting end users know that we’re working with them and not just shoving products down the pipeline,” said Arnold Birenbaum, acting IC director in the Concord, Calif., office. “If retail stores have failed before, it may have been because they were just ICs in disguise. We’re really providing retail-store services.”

The bank’s end users agree. “The improvement in service is so great that it’s hard to believe we’re dealing with the same people,” declared Kathy Walker, an administrative assistant in the bank’s consumer loans division. “The computer-services people used to be a catchall for any computer problems we had in a department. That’s so broad it just about scares you off. They are refining the process now.”

The retail stores are the most dramatic refinement offered by Bank of America’s information center. The four spacious and well-equipped retail stores are located in Concord, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York.

Each store is run by an experienced end-user computing professional whose job is to help customers select products, demonstrating them on any of the store’s half dozen systems. Users are also helped with any problems they may have with the products they use.

The day after the Concord store opened, 20 customers were milling around at midday. A few were in a room watching a demonstration of spreadsheets on a large projection screen. In another room, a representative from Lotus Development Corp. was demonstrating the two current versions of 1-2-3.

In the center of the store, where a number of cubicles held workstations configured in various ways, end users from different departments huddled together to play with competing products.

The bank’s retail chain has a policy of “dual availability” — that is, at least two competing products from each category must be available. This way, the IC can maintain standards while giving end users some flexibility.

“In the old days, the end-user computing center [now replaced by the IC] tried to maintain some kind of standards, but it was hard to do because communications with the end users was so bad,” Birenbaum acknowledged. But the bank stopped calling them “end users” about a year ago when Michael Simmons became chief information officer. He dubbed them “partners” and created the IC to work with them.

“Our people used to stand outside the boat and try to direct traffic,” Simmons explained. “Now we’re in the boat with the business partners. That’s their insurance that we care as much as they do about whether it floats.”

However, end-user computing managers who have tried the retail-store approach in the past think it’s an idea that only works well on paper. “The biggest problem was the user walked in the door of the retail store and said, ‘I want a spreadsheet,’ ” recalled Stephen Morse, a senior technology analyst with Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co., a New York bank. “The retail-store people would accommodate. They couldn’t really counsel because they were sitting in the store. You want people providing the help to walk around and get into the customer’s environment.”

Another major bank, New York’s Chemical Corp., tried the retail-store route three years ago and dropped it quickly. Said a former Chemical employee who asked not to be identified: “It became a joke because we were offering products, but if the end user wanted something different, they just went out and got it.”

Bank of America claims it has the answer to those issues. Birenbaum said the retail store “augments partner relations. It doesn’t take their place.”

The IC continues to send analysts into the business units to monitor their requirements. In addition, if a customer wants a product that isn’t available from the IC store, the retail manager may add it to the approved list.

“Naturally, we aren’t going to just sit there and let each customer come in and tell us to add a new product,” Birenbaum said. “That would be chaos. We’re going to add new products where it’s sensible. Where it doesn’t make sense, we will counsel the business partner.

“People respond to reason. We’re counting on that.”

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