As computers go, the one on Fred Foster's desk has absolutely no character. There's no colorful screen saver, no designer mouse pad. His computer and desk are both that dull color that's not quite beige, not quite gray.
It's so drab it's hard to believe this computer is what First Union Corp. proudly calls "Einstein," the genius so critical to the bank's campaign to re-create the personal relationships customers once had with the neighborhood banker.The faceless computer is loaded with personality - full of facts and figures about each and every First Union customer. When customers phone the bank's toll-free customer-service number, Foster already knows a lot about them by the time he answers their calls.
Consider the customer who called last week to complain about her credit card's annual fee and interest rate. Her call first hit a voice-mail message that asked her to punch in her account number. It was then routed to Foster, who knew immediately she was a profitable customer for the bank, thanks to the small, bright green square that was highlighted on his computer screen.
Foster quickly asked the computer what other payment options he could offer this customer and in less than 10 seconds, responded by waiving the annual $29 fee and reducing her interest rate to 15.4 percent from 16.4 percent.
Foster is one of First Union's 2,800 personal service representatives who are using the new computer system to tailor each call to a customer's needs.
With all the mergers, "customers say they don't like banks because they believe they're big and impersonal," said Steve Boehm, head of First Union's call center. Einstein is part of the bank's 3-year-old, $25 million effort to "let us come face-to-face with the customer."
Profitability is determined by a complex formula that factors in how many accounts customers have, their overall balance, the length of time they've been with the bank and the services they use.
"It's different for every customer," said Jack M. Antonini, First Union's executive vice president. A college student with a single checking account and a low balance may be deemed just as valuable as a retiree with several accounts and a large balance because of the student's future business potential.
For customers, a green rating may mean the bank would be more willing to waive the fee for a bounced check. With a yellow ranking, there'd be a little hesitation, and the fee would not be waived for a red-ranked caller.
No matter what the client's ranking, Einstein eventually will be able to prompt sales agents to suggest transactions much like the neighborhood bankers did in informal chats with their customers. When an account holder calls seeking interest rate information for a home loan, for example, the computer would instantly signal if that customer's credit rating is good enough to pre-qualify for a loan.
"We want our customers to think we have a genius at every desk," Boehm said. "That's why we called the system Einstein."