Bankers are more eager than ever to create a "new breed" of call center, an American Bankers Association study said.

But only a small segment have been able to translate that enthusiasm into marked improvements in sales and customer service performance.

The ABA's call center report was based on a survey of 150 banks conducted by Financial Training Resources Inc., of Lombard, Ill.

Among the major findings: Banks are investing in call center gadgetry, but are lagging in such critical areas as training and recruiting of call center representatives.

"I call it 'the ecstasy of technology,'" said Cheryl O'Donohue, director of marketing for Financial Training Resources and author of the study.

"You get a bunch of people in the room, and they say, 'Look at all these bells and whistles.' And you want to stand up and shout, 'Well, how will this help the bank's ability to serve the customer?'"

The survey divided the banks into two groups: Those that described themselves as "leading edge" in their use of call centers, and those that did not.

The leading-edge banks - about 10% of respondents - "behaved differently almost across the board in every key area surveyed," Ms. O'Donohue said.

The most striking difference between the groups was that senior managers at leading-edge banks said they viewed their call centers as "profit centers" and "cost-reduction centers." Executives at other banks viewed their call centers simply as "cost centers."

Bankers who regarded their call centers in a more profitable light were more successful using them as sales tools, reporting their banks as places where a definable "sales culture" had emerged.

"Selling from the call center will become increasingly important as other, more depersonalized sales distribution channels evolve," predicted Ruth Thoes-Vivrett of Gemini Consulting, who reviewed the survey.

"The call center can help you differentiate your business in your customer's mind, while maintaining the human contact," she added.

Nearly all the banks surveyed planned to enhance their call centers within the next 12 months. Forty-six percent planned to add support for personal computer home banking; 32% planned Internet support; and 29% said they planned to introduce an outbound sales component.

The distinguishing characteristics of the banks reporting call center successes included staffing by well-paid, full-time employees; ongoing training programs; extensive call monitoring and skill-based call routing; and a wide use of available technologies, including voice response units and automatic call distribution systems.

Senior managers at these banks said their call centers were viewed as branches of the future, places where product sales and customer service took place side-by-side.

"Call centers are sort of being reborn, and people are doing new and different things with them," said Anne Livingston, associate director of bank card and retail delivery for the ABA.

The survey found that one of the biggest mistakes bankers made was investing in state-of-the-art call center technology without understanding its power and without supporting it with knowledgeable employees.

Duane Jarnecke, vice president of telemarketing sales at Provident Bank in Cincinnati, said bankers could avoid these "pitfalls" if they focused on recruiting the right people for their staff and on reinforcing a retail sales environment.

"I certainly put the human resource piece a little higher on my list (than technology), because, of course, that's what makes it happen," said Mr. Jarnecke, who joined Provident 18 months ago. Before that, he assembled a 330-person call center for Barnett Banks Inc. of Jacksonville, Fla.

"Depending on what you want to do with your call center, you can probably make do with less technology as long as you've got highly motivated people," he said. "It's a delicate balancing act."

The survey found that success in implementing a call center cut across asset size. Large and small banks were encountering similar problems and rewards.

Ms. O'Donohue said the banks operating successfully "were clearly viewing the call center as a way to gain competitive advantage."

"Because they view it as such, they're making different decisions in their call centers," she said. "They're very focused, they have a mission, there's clarity. Somewhere along the line, they identified a common culture for that call center and how it supports the bank overall."

These banks were taking a "holistic" approach, the report said, finding ways to link the call center with their other departments.

"The call centers of today are clearly in an evolutionary state," the study concluded. "The next step in the call center evolution seems to be in the area of refining inbound and outbound sales activities and introducing PC home banking support."

Ms. Thoes-Vivrett, who advises banks on how to set up their call centers, recommends that bankers "recognize the call center as a viable distribution channel" and back it up with proper training and financial support.

She emphasized that call center representatives should be people who want to work there - not people plucked from branches against their will.

Call centers are "an untapped resource that the consumers love," Ms. Thoes-Vivrett said. "But the banks haven't figured out yet how to take advantage of that in a very dynamic way. It's happening all around them, and everyone's still standing there, saying, 'I don't know what to do about this.'"

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