Two years after giving a little-known Irish consulting firm a major role in building its telephone banking channel, Dime Bancorp in New York reports that it is achieving payback on its investment more quickly than expected.

Helping to create 1-800-THE-DIME, the $20 billion-asset company's direct banking channel, was the first U.S. project for Dublin-based Vision Consulting. The 14-year-old privately held firm has 40 customers, 36 of them in Europe, including Bank of Ireland, Swiss Bank Corp., Lloyds TSB, and Bank of Scotland.

"We brought in Vision because they had good skills in this telephone banking area," said Tom Ducca, chief information officer at Dime.

In a partnership with Benton International Inc., a subsidiary of Perot Systems Corp., Vision helped Dime develop a strategy that included installing customized middleware from Broadway & Seymour, improving the banking company's interactive voice-response capabilities, and coordinating the activities of its two call-centers.

A major goal was to combine the previously separate capabilities for handling inbound and outbound calls. "The bank wanted to respond to inbound calls but use the calls to begin opportunity assessment and sell," said Mr. Ducca.

A review of the installation, completed last month, revealed that "we have a stable system and are leveraging our call volume into additional sales," Mr. Ducca said. "We're ahead of schedule in our business case."

Vision, which develops strategies and software for electronic commerce, call centers, and customer relationship management, has since pushed slightly further into the U.S. market, attracting thestreet.com, a financial news service on the Internet; Westcom, a telecommunications provider; and the New York office of the French bank Paribas.

And it is setting its sights higher, with the recent opening of an office in midtown Manhattan. The goal is to increase the number of employees in the New York office from 20 to 100 by the end of 1999.

"We saw a space in the market for a new type of consultancy," said Gerald Adams, founder and chief technology officer of Vision, which has 350 consultants worldwide, most of whom come from larger firms such as Andersen Consulting and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Vision was a force in developing its home country's first direct bank, launched by Bank of Ireland in May 1996 after eight months of work.

"We needed a technology partner to do system integration work for telephone banking," said Lou Buglioli, president of Benton International, who was program manager at Banking 365, Bank of Ireland's direct bank. "Vision is a good technology company and did a good job."

Bank of Ireland's $7 million investment in Banking 365, which offers banking services over the telephone and Internet, has paid off, said Cathal Muckian, head of direct banking and insurance at Dublin-based Bank of Ireland.

But the bank is now under pressure to upgrade because of higher-than- expected call volumes. Its single call-center receives 160,000 calls a month, or 7,500 on a peak day.

At Paribas, Vision is working on a global year-2000 program in the bank's capital markets groups in New York and London.

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