Stopping people from filing for bankruptcy has become a full-time job for some people in the banking industry, and a small Buffalo consulting company is capitalizing on this trend.

Tavco Direct Co. offers banks a range of bankruptcy prevention tools, including employee training seminars and videos aimed at customers who are being hounded by collectors.

Some of the biggest financial companies - including Chase Manhattan Corp., NationsBank Corp., Norwest Corp., Fleet Financial Group, and Associates First Capital Corp. - are turning to Tavco Direct.

Chase Manhattan, for example, is using Tavco to teach its employees the people skills to handle people who are on the verge of filing for bankruptcy. Some of these companies are also using Tavco's videos, which are meant to show the caring side of banks and to teach people the "real" facts about filing for bankruptcy.

"The courtroom experience is one way of putting fear into people," said Tavco Direct's president, Ralph J. Taverna. "They need to know that it is a public, not private, experience."

Bankers are keenly aware of the growth of bankruptcy and are particularly interested in finding ways to avert filings. In 1997 unsecured lenders lost $35 billion in bankruptcy courts, $11 billion of which was credit card debt, according to WEFA Inc., an economic forecasting firm that did research for the Bankruptcy Issues Council, an industry coalition that includes some of the largest credit card lenders.

In the past year, most lenders have created bankruptcy prevention units, which field calls from customers who say they are planning to file for bankruptcy.

Tavco Direct has set up such units for a number of banks, including Chase, which hired Mr. Taverna to train employees in its four customer management centers.

The five-day seminars focus on "how to use caring words with customers and how to develop a bond with the customer so that a solution can be worked out," said Mr. Taverna.

The idea is for the bank to spend more time with customers, typically 10 to 15 minutes, to determine whether the person does indeed need to file for bankruptcy or has other options. For example, people may be advised to borrow money from a 401(k) savings plan.

"I'm talking about really listening to people for emotions and facts," Mr. Taverna said. Prime candidates for these seminars are collections department employees who have been reprimanded for spending too much time on the telephone with delinquent customers.

During the past three years, Tavco has interviewed about 300 people who are in bankruptcy to find out what events led to their problems and their impressions of the experience.

The chief reason people filed for bankruptcy, Tavco found, was to stop the calls from collectors. The interviews showed people find the experience painful and humiliating.

Some interviews, in which people complain that they were not properly informed of the downside of bankruptcy, appear on the videos Tavco sends to people who are considering filing.

Though Mr. Taverna declined to share his clients' experiences in reducing bankruptcy losses, he said, "I don't know of a bank that has not continued" the Tavco program "and not increased the amount of human resources and effort put into it."

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