Better late than never.

Next month, Winston Salem, N.C.-based BB&T Corp. will join the ranks of regional banks relying on 24-hour call centers.

BB&T, which has $27.5 billion in assets, plans to invest about $10.3 million in its new call center, slated to open Sept. 22 in Whiteville, N.C. The operation will start with about 50 employees, but will hire up to 150 more by the end of the year, said the center's director, Tom E. Baldwin.

"We can service more customers in a more economic way with this call center," said Mr. Baldwin.

BB&T's move to open a call center thrusts it into a fast-evolving banking arena where companies are increasingly combining technology and telephones to lower transaction costs while maximizing service and sales efforts. More than 90% of banking companies with more than $20 billion in assets offer call-center service, according to a 1996 survey by Speer & Associates Inc., an Atlanta-based financial consulting firm.

The reason is simple: cost. The industry estimates an in-branch teller transaction costs about $2.50, while a transaction with a call center representative costs between $1.10 and $1.20, said Peter Davidson, executive vice president of Speer & Associates.

BB&T will incorporate some of the newest technology in its call center, said Mr. Baldwin. In addition to an automatic scheduling and forecasting system, the center will have an automatic call distribution system that will direct incoming calls to associates based on their skill levels.

Mr. Baldwin said BB&T anticipates one million calls a month to the center, and expects between 20% and 25% of those to be routed to an associate for personal handling.

Initially, the call center will not handle any product sales, providing only customer information and assistance. But plans call for opening accounts over the phone, originating loans, and outbound sales and marketing efforts, according to Mr. Baldwin.

The call center will replace an automated telephone banking system which allowed customers only to check account balances and perform other limited functions.

Analysts said BB&T's move to a 24-hour center is smart, if tardy.

"They are late to the game," said Marguerite E. Sons, an analyst with Interstate/Johnson Lane. "But putting in a call center makes sense. It's another option for consumers."

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