First National Bank of Chicago is introducing a checking service that goes to unusual extremes in steering customers away from branches.

Beginning next month, the First Chicago Corp. subsidiary will offer products with lower prices on automated teller machine and telephone transactions than on traditional teller visits. The bank hopes to free its human tellers for transactions that require special attention.

"The key to this whole thing is choice and control," said W. G. "Jerry" Jurgensen, executive vice president and head of the community banking group. "This is not an either-or proposition - branches or alternative delivery channels. The key is to be able to utilize each for their best intended purpose."

The new accounts come in four variations. All allow unlimited, free use of First Chicago ATMs. They also permit four to six free visits to branch tellers per month.

Beyond the teller minimums and six to eight "foreign" ATM transactions, customers will pay fees ranging from $1.50 at non-First Chicago ATMs to $3 for a teller transaction.

In further incentives to customers with at least $15,000 in total balances and $2,500 in checking, First Chicago will pay higher interest rates and waive fees for teller visits and ATM use anywhere in the world.

Les Dinkin, managing principal of NBW Consulting Group, Westport, Conn., said First Chicago wants customers to "stop using antiquated, expensive branches (and) give tellers more time to sell the bank's products."

Such price differentials have been tried elsewhere. BankAmerica Corp.'s Versatel checking account has been "very popular" with both rural and urban customers, as well as middle-aged and younger people, said spokesman John Stafford.

With its multiple options, First Chicago is going after a broad base of people - even those with higher incomes - who are increasingly identified in market research as preferring automation.

An influential 1993 research report by the Bank Administration Institute and First Manhattan Consulting Group found that ATM and telephone transactions outnumbered branch transactions at major retail banks like First Chicago. The study also said the population favoring alternative delivery is growing.

"Branches used to be considered the front line in banking," Mr. Dinkin said. "Today, many bankers see them as the Maginot Line."

One critic, Chicago-based consultant Kevin Tynan, predicted First Chicago's products won't sell. He expects the bank to be "skewered" by community groups and smaller banks promoting more personal services.

"This is their New Coke, but I don't think consumers are going to swallow it," said the president of Tynan Marketing Inc. "This bank is sending out a very clear signal, and that is it doesn't give a damn about the middle class."

Bad publicity in 1983 forced Citibank to stop allowing teller access only to customers with more than $5,000 in the bank. Though the policy had been in place at 37 branches for nearly two years, its introduction at two busy Manhattan offices created a political uproar.

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