Bank Employees Gain Phone Link to In-House Data Bases

The night storm rumbled and roared. Worried by reports of scattered electrical outages and flash floods, a bank employee dialed a toll-free number and learned the doors would open two hours late.

As voice-response telephone systems become more powerful, banks are finding more and more uses. Retail customers can still get account information, but now bank employees can get a range of information, too, some of it quite sophisticated.

At Wachovia Corp., for example, the bad-weather scenario is no piece of fiction. The bank's toll-free help line frequently carries messages about wheather delays or other changes in official bank procedure.

"The biggest benefit is paper reduction," said Dennis Lee, Wachovia's senior vice president and manager of compensation and benefits. "Right now the help line is used only for announcements about inclement weather delays and discount tickets available for events in the Winston-Salem area. But we could use it to announce policy changes, like adding a holiday.

Options on Deck

Mr. Lee also thinks the system could be used for job postings. But the bank has yet to figure out a way to alert employees to call into the system to get this kind of information.

The system used by Wachovia, in Winston-Salem, N.C., also offers employees an easy and convenient way to check up on the status of their savings, profit-sharing, and retirement plans and lets them enroll in the bank's flexible benefit plan in one quick phone call. They simply dial an 800 number - at any time, the system operates 24 hours a day, seve days a week - and they will be plungged into an updated data base with their personal information.

"Four our defined-contribution retirement plan," Mr. Lee said, "the most frequently requested information is account balance."

The people who call into the system are presented with a menu of options through which they can get the account balance broken out into pretax and postax contributions, employee and employer contributions, or the current balance in each of the three investment funds offered by the company.

Responses Personalized

Callers can also get information about how much is available for withdrawal, whether there would be any penalty for withdrawals, how much is available for loans, the current loan interest rates, and their current contribution percentages for each of the three investment funds. All of this information is personalized for each caller.

"Right now, the system is for information only," Mr. Lee said, "but our next step may be to install actual transaction processing." Although this phase of the project is only in the planning stages now, Mr. Lee anticipates a timetable of second-quarter 1992 for transaction processing.

"People like to change their investment elections based on what the market is doing," he said, "so any transaction-processing software we install would have to incorporate that option. It, too, would be eliminating the flow of paper."

Time and Money Saved

Another big benefit is the tremendous time and cost savings. "Heretofore, all these calls were coming to personnel," Mr. Lee said. "Someone would have to find a name on a computer printout, look for the specific info requested, and relay that information. That led to real long calls."

And employees frequently complained that they kept getting busy signals whenever they called for information.

By contrast, the system handles about 2,000 calls a month, each one lasting about three minutes. There are no busy signals.

"We reduced staff by two people since installing the system," Mr. Lee said. "And service to employees is better."

More Current Data Sought

The only complaint he's received about the telephone service is that it is updated only once a month. Some employees want information more frequently than that. The technology exists to update more regularly, and bank management is looking into this option.

Wachovia also uses telephone technology to enroll employees in its flexible benefits program. During the annual enrollment period, employees are given a package of information describing the various plans.

To sign up, people just call into the system, enter their social security numbers, and then, led by a voice prompt, make their elections among the company's three healt insurance plans, other insurance options, and various benefits like a flexible spending account.

"The voice on the system then repeats the elections and gets a confirmation," Mr. Lee said. "Thirty days later, employees get a printed confirmation of their benefits. This system eliminates paper and speed up the process."

Wachovia's RobotOperator system is supplied by Inter Voice Inc., Dallas. Other companies that make voice-response systems include Syntellect, Phoenix; IBM, Armonk, N.Y.; Periphonics Inc., Bohemia, N.Y.; Perception Technology, Canton, Mass.; Brite Voice, Wichita, Kan., and AT&T.

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