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By: Deena Amato-McCoy
By: Deena Amato-McCoy
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Commerce Bank Manages Knowledge Profitably

Commerce Bank discovered that its most precious asset-knowledge-was locked away in file cabinets and in the heads of its workers.

Along the way toward becoming a powerhouse in the Philadelphia-southern N.J. region, Commerce Bank discovered that its most precious asset-knowledge-was locked away in file cabinets and in the heads of its workers.

It needed a way to tap this knowledge if it were to continue its ambitious growth targets. In 30 years of existence, Commerce Bank has grown to 214 branches, and plans to add as many as 60 by the end of 2003.

Dubbing itself America's Most Convenient Bank, the $15.4 billion institution strives not only for a strong banking network, but also to give each branch the power to make business decisions and better serve its customers.

"With such explosive growth, we encourage our associates to learn all about the customer and the right way to service them," said Jack Allison, vice president of systems development at Commerce Bank, Cherry Hill, N.J. "To do that, we need to train associates consistently and conveniently across the network."

The first step for new employees is Commerce University, a boot camp where they're instilled with the fundamentals of customer service. But the program, thorough as it is, doesn't even begin to cover the range of issues that an associate might encounter. So they were forced to rely on each other and supervisors for answers.

"We had folks in administration that could spend 70 percent of their time answering calls and clarifying answers for branches," Allison said. "At times, we could wait weeks or months for the right answer to certain questions. Knowing that training may not give answers for every scenario, we needed to give associates a tool that could help them find any answer to any topic at any time."

Needed was a workflow-based knowledge management system that could provide instant answers to questions for the bank's employees and online customers. "We have so many regulations and products, we needed a way to give our employees all the knowledge to process these," said Allison.

The solution lay in IBM's Lotus Notes, which the bank has been using since 1995. Using IBM's Domino server, which houses the Lotus Notes client and an application development tool kit, Commerce Bank created an in-house knowledge management system, called Wow Answer Guide.

Introduced in 2000, Wow Answer Guide provides a central repository of processes surrounding all bank transactions, helps associates learn a process and respond to customer inquiries, and retains information electronically. Employees also can use the system to register for the bank's continuing education program.

"It is especially good for the green associate or veteran who is still learning how to process a new product," said Allison. "We don't want our associates on a scavenger hunt to get the correct information."

The complete Wow Answer Guide contains more than 400 applications, and Commerce plans to add even more, such as a customer relationship management application. "The application environment is a zero-cost add as it will be fabrication of the existing platform," Allison said.

Taking advantage of the application's cost-efficiencies, Commerce began empowering online customers with their own Wow Answer Guide in the summer of 2000.

"We wanted to put information in our customers' hands so they could conduct online transactions with confidence," said Allison. "We peeled back the internal policy and processing, and presented their Wow Answer Guide."

Through expanded use of the Domino platform and Notes applications, Commerce achieved a return on investment within 30 days of launching Wow Answer Guide.

The application has saved the bank $20,000 per week, or nearly $1 million a year, according to Allison. "This includes labor costs and the time it takes us to drive a transaction to completion based on the volume of requests."

It also speeds the application development process. "We are not spending as much to create the application. There is no hard coding. Since we have the platform structure and development tools, we can roll out applications quickly," Allison said.

By tapping the power of the Domino platform, Commerce Bank has transformed Wow Answer Guide from a simple Frequently Asked Questions tool into a full-fledged workflow system.

"Commerce stepped up the game and added people to the component," noted Peter Matthews, CEO at Hamilton, N.J.-based Adience Design, an IBM software partner that helped develop Wow Answer Guide.

By creating workflow applications that streamline internal communications and direct repetitive processes to the correct recipients within the organization, the bank is now able to push reports or documents with one keystroke.

This is especially helpful in automating approval-intensive processes and documents, such as wire transfers, which used to take four to six hours to complete. By adding workflow applications that route the data and required forms to the appropriate employees, the process now can be completed in three minutes.

INSTITUTION: Commerce Bank

ASSETS: $15.4 billion

BUSINESS CHALLENGE: Enable employees and customers to answer questions with a few keystrokes.

SOLUTION: Wow Answer Guide, a homegrown system based on IBM's Lotus Notes.

KEY QUOTE: "We needed to give associates a tool that could help them find any answer to any topic at any time."

- Jack Allison, VP, systems development

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