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Banks step out from behind the glass

Online banking has fans, but many customers still want to visit a local branch - and find people. Enter 'retail banking.'

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Kevin Caires is tired of being put on hold. Like most people with delicate questions about their bank accounts, he wants a quick and clear answer - from a human being.

It's a simple request. But in an era when banks nudge their customers to ATMs, the Internet, and the telephone to perform basic transactions, a plea for customer service of the human variety can seem like a petty indulgence.

"I'm looking for a bit more of a personalized feel," says Mr. Caires of Boston. "I could hardly speak with anyone at the big bank I was with before."

In the past five years, banks have turned to technology in an effort to downsize staff and shave costs. Some exist only online. At many bricks-and-mortar outlets, customers aren't greeted in the lobby by an employee, but with a sign directing them to the ATM.

And much of the information once reverently presented in sit-down chats with new customers is now posted online.

But the new regimen of cyberservice could be waning, experts suggest, as disaffected account holders like Caires grow impatient for some old-fashioned customer service.

In response, banks new and old are reinventing themselves, applying a Wal-Mart look to the face of an industry long symbolized by its imposing marble columns and employees behind plexiglass or bars.

"When Internet banking started a few years ago, everyone was saying 'more automation, less human interaction,' " says Avivah Litan, an industry analyst with Gartner Group in Stamford, Conn. "Now [bankers] have learned that their bread and butter is more human interaction."

The people-friendly approach of one of Boston's newest branches prompted Caires to switch his account. Directbanking.com, a dual online and bricks-and-mortar bank, recently opened a branch in the city's Financial District just blocks from the neck-craning headquarters of banking behemoth FleetBoston.

The fledgling branch's lobby is plastered with a telling message: "Welcome to the world's most advanced branch." Even more indicative of the bank's iconoclasm: Its walls are bright yellow and blue, and a big-screen TV broadcasts financial news in the lobby.

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