Federal Communications Group Inc. is telling bankers that prepaid telephone cards can give them an unparalleled opportunity for market research.

The Bellevue, Wash., phone card marketer has developed a program for automated teller machines that is customizable for the bank providing the service. FCG is claiming to get response rates of 50% to 75%.

A customer, when finished using an ATM, gets a TeleSurvey card -- usually in the form of a voucher printed on the back of the transaction receipt.

One research option provides 10 free long-distance calling minutes, accessible by calling a toll-free number and entering a personal identification number. When the customers call, they are offered extra telephone time in return for answering some survey questions. If they decline, they still get the initial 10 minutes.

A bank could also choose a second scenario in which the first 10 free minutes are contingent upon answering the survey.

The questions, which are answered by pressing keys on the phone, could be about a variety of topics. A bank could determine the identity of respondents who are its own customers and ask how satisfied they are with the bank's services.

When they give out these surveys, it is very important for them to know who is dissatisfied, said Moe Ghaffari, FCG's national sales manager.

Respondents might be asked how far they live from the bank's nearest branch as part of research related to Community Reinvestment Act programs. FCG said one bank has just signed up to distribute 500,000 cards for an Internet banking promotion.

The card can also promote loan or credit card offerings or provide access to customer service centers.

Prepaid phone services fit in with the trend toward making non-cash items such as prepaid cards and postage stamps available through ATMs.

PNC Bank Corp. of Pittsburgh and First Union Corp. of Charlotte, N.C., began selling prepaid phone cards or vouchers at ATMs this year.

Mr. Ghaffari said FCG's TeleSurvey could work for banks selling prepaid phone cards at ATMs. But he contended that the high consumer response rate hinges on the free minutes offered.

One cautionary note, he said, is that prepaid phone card users tend to have lower incomes. Many do not have home telephones, and some wouldn't dream of having a checking account, he said.

First Union, which began selling MCI WorldCom prepaid phone card vouchers at 2,900 branch ATMs at the end of May, said the product is doing well.

We're very pleased with the usage and acceptance in the consumer marketplace, a First Union spokesman said. I think it's safe to say that it is meeting our expectations at this point in the program.

The banking company has no plan to do telephone surveys. A good part of the market doesn't want to be encumbered" by such questioning, the spokesman said.

FCG said it is the first company in the country to offer the survey service through ATMs. The combination is a powerful tool, Mr. Ghaffari said, because it taps into anyone who walks up to that ATM, not just a bank's customers.

FCG began offering ATM TeleSurvey cards about two months ago. It said it works with three banks, which it would not name, but Mr. Ghaffari described two of them as pretty major. The company has processed more than 50,000 surveys, he said.

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