The night before the news was released that U.S. Bancorp had agreed to be bought by First Bank System Inc., nearly all the target's 16,000 employees were informed of the deal via a phone tree.

A small U.S. Bancorp staff, which had been aware of the merger discussions for about a week, made the calls between 8 and 9.

"Everyone was so thankful the next day that they had gotten that call," said Tina Foster, U.S. Bancorp's executive vice president in charge of retail. "It helped to make this not as overwhelming as it could have been."

The step was the first of many that the two companies have taken since the megadeal was announced to cushion the blow on both employees and customers.

The primary goal: avoid the sort of customer runoff that Wells Fargo & Co. suffered in its awkward integration of First Interstate Bancorp.

The Oregon bank commissioner also is eager to avoid such problems.

"Based upon the recent Wells Fargo acquisition of First Interstate, I am determined that Oregonians will not again be subjected to callous and indifferent responses to legitimate customer complaints," Commissioner Cecil R. Monroe wrote to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis four days after the deal was announced.

U.S. Bancorp seems keenly aware of such issues. Employees have been given a pile of information about the merger and their new owners to be ready for any questions from customers. And a series of five ads to help keep customers on board is running in newspapers.

For the employees the two banks set up a 24-hour hot line and on April 1 began a weekly newsletter, In Transition, that answers questions on topics ranging from severance policy to timing on staffing decisions.

About 4,000 jobs will be eliminated. Decisions are expected on most of the personnel questions by the end of June.

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