First Chicago NBD Corp. has taken a small step into the telephone business.
With a telephone card called OnCall, First Chicago claims to be the first bank to offer a service that combines long-distance calling, facsimile, and voice mail with access to bank accounts.
First Chicago officials said they don't expect much revenue from the phone cards, but industry observers said the effort may help the company differentiate itself from competitors and build customer loyalty.
"It's another brand impression," said John McCabe, president of Global Telecommunication Solutions Inc., a phone card provider based in New York. "You have a credit card, a debit card, and in this case, a phone card."
Along with basics like long distance, the OnCall card offers enhancements such as conference calling and access to electronic mail, news, weather, and sports. Plans call for a similar product that would provide Internet access.
"Communications are a service, and so are financial services," said John Robb, First Chicago NBD's Internet project manager and architect of the new OnCall cards. "Integrating the services makes a lot of sense. As we go forward, customers will look to us to add more services-financial and other services."
Pricing of OnCall is similar to that of prepaid calling cards. Customers can make local or long-distance calls for a flat 25 cents a minute, with the fees charged to any debit or credit card.
Mr. Robb said First Chicago experimented with phone cards for two years before deciding to offer its own with Premiere Technologies Inc. of Atlanta last month.
The OnCall card has attracted 2,000 customers since April 1, Mr. Robb said. It will be marketed to First Chicago's two million customers and to potential customers.
So far, First Chicago is marketing OnCall in statement stuffers. It expects initially to attract business travelers and college students, said a spokesman.
U.S. Bancorp, Portland, Ore., added a prepaid calling function to its 800,000 debit cards last June, said John Grant, vice president of debit card products.
Fewer than 10% of U.S. Bancorp's debit customers use the service, however. To attract new users, Mr. Grant said, he hopes to expand the service to another 700,000 people who have automated teller machine cards.
Mr. Grant said the company does not heavily market the product, and there are some unappealing aspects to it. "It takes a number of more key strokes to get into the system" than with regular calling cards, he said.
Other banks have dabbled with prepaid phone services, but their experiences have not always been good.
In 1993, TCF Financial Corp. of Minneapolis offered the cards to customers who referred annuity business to the bank. Phone cards had not really caught on in the Midwest at that time, and some customers were confused about how to use them.
The company dropped the card offer after a short time. However, TCF's special ATM cards for students at the University of Minnesota and two smaller Midwest colleges have calling card functions.