SAN FRANCISCO -- Talk about "working the phones."

Seattle-First National BAnk tried to reach out and touch 160,000 customers in recent weeks to keep their business after its parent company, BankAmerica Corp., merged with Security Pacific Corp.

The telephone blitz was part of Campaign Retain, Seafirst's program to keep post-merger customer loss at acceptable levels.

"Retention was our biggest issue in the merger," said executive vice president Marie Gunn, Seafirst's service quality manager.

Target Is Less than 10%

For retail checking accounts inherited from Security Pacific, the goal was to keep merger-related runoff below 10%, Ms. Gunn said. Marketing pros consider runoff of less than 10% to be a mark of a successful merger.

Seafirst has not yet compiled data on how many customers it actually reached. But it says that using the phone was an idea that came directly from customers of Security Pacific and Seafirst.

When they were quizzed in focus groups on their concerns about the merger, changes in their banking relationships led the list. Asked what would reassure them, they suggested telephone calls from the bank to answer questions, as well as open-house receptions at the branches.

Seafirst took their advice. After mailing information packets to customers on the effects of the merger, it followed with the phone calls.

Following Up on Mailings

Bank employees said they were calling to see if the packets had been received and if there were any questions. Then they invited the customers to visit their local branches.

The only retail customers who were off-limits were those at the 86 Seafirst branches being sold to KeyCorp of Albany, N.Y., and West One Bancorp, Boise, Idaho, to comply with antitrust rules.

The merger of BankAmerica and Security Pacific fused the Evergreen State's two largest banks, creating a $15.7 billion bank, three times larger than its nearest competitor.

"The open houses and telephone calls helped to minimize the big-bank feeling," Ms. Gunn said.

The telephone campaign involved two stages. From mid-March to mid-April, Seafirst contacted its own customers. From the end of April until late May - the period between closing the merger and converting Security Pacific branches to Seafirst - calls went to Security Pacific checking account holders.

In addition to using branch staff, Seafirst mobilized a special 12-person telemarketing unit to make calls. The telemarketers reached more than 17,000 account holders.

According to figures compiled by the telemarketing unit, about 5% of customers who received calls decided to stay with Seafirst after having considered leaving.

A Sweet Approach

The bank held receptions at each of its 266 branches in April and May, Ms. Gunn said. Branch staff welcomed customers, served cookies, coffee and apples, and distributed literature on bank services.

For dealing with customers who complained or cited glitches in their accounts, Seafirst had an ace in the hole.

"We knew there would be problems, so we worked out a deal" with a local candy manufacturer, Ms. Gunn said.

Ruffled customers received gifts of chocolate accompanied by cards expressing regret for any inconvenience. Ms. Gunn said Seafirst has sent out about 500 chocolate apologies.

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