In contrast to banking by personal computer, telephone-based services are widely used and growing steadily, and the industry is scrambling to meet the quality standards that consumers expect over the phone.

The 1996 American Banker/Gallup consumer survey found that 54% of people were aware that their financial institutions offered 24-hour telephone banking, up from 50% in 1994, when the question was last asked.

Also, 65% said they had used a telephone banking service, typically involving a touch-tone phone with automated voice response. This was up from 62% in 1994.

Most of the people who had tried telephone banking were happy with it: 45% said they were "very satisfied" with the service, and 42% said they were "somewhat satisfied."

It is a gratifying result for an industry that has viewed the telephone as an important, lower-cost method of "alternative delivery." But the percentage of those "very satisfied" lags the 59% benchmark for all respondents' general satisfaction with their principal financial institutions.

Automated teller machine services also scored higher than telephone banking, with 55% of cardholders very satisfied.

"The telephone is the one technology that people feel very comfortable using, and it is so versatile," said Cheryl O'Donoghue of FTR Inc., who conducted a survey on call centers for the American Bankers Association last fall.

The more banks try to discourage customers from using branches, the more they will have to rely on telephones for the human touch, Ms. O'Donoghue said.

"I think the telephone is going to become even more of a communications tool as banks start thinking about the quality of the conversations they have on the telephone," she said.

Banks are investing heavily in call centers, and the Gallup results suggest they are paying off. Of the 1,031 people surveyed, 56% said they had used the telephone to check account balances, and 29% said they had moved money between accounts.

Also, 25% said they had called to request information on financial services; 19% used the phone to request a stop payment on a check; 12% paid bills; 8% applied for a loan; and 5% opened an account.

By comparison, a Boston Consulting Group study for the Bank Administration Institute showed that 70% of customers were doing some - if not most - of their transactions by telephone.

"In terms of remote channels, the telephone strategically is by far the most important," said Bobby Mehta, a vice president at Boston Consulting.

He described telephones and computers as complementary channels, not competing ones. A consumer might choose to do some transactions by computer and others by phone, he said.

"Using the touch-tone phone is not a very comfortable way to do bill payment, but if you want to check whether a certain trade has cleared, it's much easier to do it over the phone," Mr. Mehta said.

"For any financial institution, the idea is not to pick which channel they're going to be investing in - they have to be investing in both."

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