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February 25, 1996

Finding Your Glitch in Banking on Your PC

By SAUL HANSELL

It is a modern corollary to Murphy's Law that any time you find a way to do something more efficiently with a computer, enough bugs crop up so you wind up with no more free time than before.

That is the exasperating experience of many of the initial users of the home banking features introduced last October in Quicken, the most popular software program for tracking personal finances.

To employ Quicken, a product of the Intuit Corp., users previously had to type details of all of their checks and deposits into their computers. The new features have an alluring prospect -- they allow users to receive that information from their banks through Intuit's computers.

But many users are already complaining that those computers are busy or that the balance information is out of date. Some also say that payments of bills handled by Quicken have been late.

And customers say they have spent hours on hold waiting for help from Intuit, noting angrily that calls to the company's suburban Chicago office are not toll free.

Laurence W. Tobin, the president of Vermillion and Western Holdings, an investment firm in Houston, tried recently to link Quicken to his American Express account. Like many users, he found that the transfer often didn't work correctly, and, worse, that Intuit couldn't help him.

"In trying to deal with Intuit, I got the endless runaround, infinite waits on hold, stupid answers and daisy chains of people to talk to," he said. After several months of trying, "I have really somewhat resigned myself to the fact that system will not work reliably yet," he said.

Similarly, Larry Belikoff of Richboro, Pa., said he signed up eagerly for the Quicken banking and bill-paying service though Corestates Bank, after several years of using Corestates' previous bill-paying service.

"I'm very disappointed with Intuit," he said. Not only is the computer connection unreliable, but some of his bill payments have been three weeks late. Indeed, most creditors that Intuit said it was paying by electronic transfer ended up receiving checks in the mail, he said. "The problem is," he said, "if you want to use Quicken, their service is the only game in town."

Steve Pelletier, an Intuit vice president, conceded that the company's computers failed in January on two consecutive Saturdays, peak days for people to pay their bills, and Intuit did not have backup machines. Intuit now says it has found and remedied the problem.

For some customers, problems have been compounded because the links between American Express and Intuit have also failed frequently. Customers who were trying to download statement information sometimes wound up with cryptic error messages.

"Is the system perfect yet?" said David Bauman, the American Express vice president in charge of on-line services. "It's not. We have disappointed some people but we have made major strides."

Most users are now having few problems, he said, although customers still cannot get account information on the day that American Express is printing their monthly statements.

As for the other complaints, Pelletier said that Intuit had just installed a toll-free number for customer assistance and that hold times had declined to 4.5 minutes.

Even the banks are annoyed by Intuit's glitches.

"Intuit's service isn't as reliable as our customers expected us to be, so they put us in an awkward situation," said one top executive of a West Coast bank that has been aggressively selling the Quicken home banking program and who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Customers call us with complaints, but we aren't in control."

As for delayed payments, Intuit concedes that it stopped making most electronic transfers when it found that they were not being posted reliably. Intuit is now sending payments by Federal Express to those merchants that customers have been told would be paid electronically.

"A vast majority of our customers are quite happy, but some are disappointed because the system can't do what they thought it could," Pelletier said. "Some people wanted a personal cash management system that lets them time their mortgage payment right to the end of the grace period. The state of the art isn't there yet."


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