Citicorp is offering rewards to big-ticket customers who refer their friends and associates for new business.

Although corporate America has long relied on client referrals to generate a pool of business prospects, Citicorp's program could be the first use of the tactic by a major U.S. bank.

The word-of-mouth strategy helps solidify relationships with current customers, said consultants.

"They are showing that this is not just a commodity business, it is a relationship," said Peter Harleman, area managing director at Landor Associates, a consulting firm in New York. "They are saying, 'We want more good customers like you.'"

It also helps Citicorp find prospects that fall into a desired category, said consultants who track direct mail strategies.

Citicorp is asking for referrals from its approximately 15,000 CitiGold account customers. CitiGold, the bank's high-end retail package, requires a minimum balance of $100,000 in combined deposit and securities accounts or $250,000 if linked to a Citibank mortgage balance.

Customers who make referrals through the direct mail campaign will get rewards for each person who qualifies and opens a CitiGold account.

The offer expires Dec. 31.

Rewards include 10,000 miles toward American Airlines' frequent-flier program, $150 gift certificates for selected department and specialty stores, or certificates for dining at restaurants nationwide.

"There's a better chance of getting the right customer rather than trying to predict" through a blind mailing, said Jonathan Bell, a consultant at Interbrand-Schechter in New York.

Consultants said such programs could become more popular as banks try to find inexpensive ways to reach new customers.

"Right now, banks are trying to build revenues as rapidly as possible," said Edward Furash, chairman of Furash & Co., a Washington consulting firm. "And they are doing that by trying to find less expensive ways of generating higher-quality leads."

More traditional marketing approaches can be costly. Branch-based campaigns can cost $40 to $75 to win just one new deposit customer, said Rockwell F. Clancy 2d, executive vice president at the Bank Administration Institute, a Chicago trade group.

By using current customers, Citicorp will be able to avoid investments in advertising or data base research, consultants said.

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