First Union Corp. customers will soon be able to walk into one of 55 distance learning classrooms to talk with financial experts and learn about new products.
The centers will be at the companys head office, in Charlotte, N.C., and at call center sites, rather than in branches. The first customers will be invited in early next year.
The development of the centers is in line with growing interest among financial services firms among them Charles Schwab & Co. in leavening their high-tech delivery technologies with high-touch applications.
In particular, First Unions distance learning project looks to be a hybrid of two fashionable strategies: using educational programs as marketing tools and deploying interactive technologies to drive cross-sales.
First Union said that it intends to use the system not just for customers, but also to teach its own employees.
According to Patty Perkins, interactive business learning manager for the FirstNet project, the plan is to have the learning centers experts answer questions that its branch staff might not be able to handle.
In addition, the $254 billion-asset company expects the centers to provide information about products and services that might not otherwise be accessible locally because the products might not normally be promoted there.
The centers will also offer classes relevant to financial planning and money management, Ms. Perkins said.
First Unions system will use a satellite network to link its learning centers. It bought the teleconferencing software from an Israeli company, Arel Communications and Software Ltd.
Arel has sold systems to other banks. It signed a contract two years ago with NationsBank Corp., now Bank of America Corp. Other recent deals are with Royal Bank of Canada, Toronto-Dominion Bank, and Royal Bank of Scotland, which all want to offer distance learning for their employees, the company said.
According to Moshe Ben-Yishai, Arels president and chief executive officer, only First Union has used his companys software to build customer applications.
Schwab launched a similar service in February, developed with Web-based software from Digital Think of San Francisco. The Schwab Learning Center was set up to help its customers learn the basics of investing, and offers six courses on topics such as mutual funds and retirement with content generated by Schwab.
At First Unions learning centers, which are to be equipped with video display screens and keypads, customers and employees will be able to participate in discussions, question-and-answer sessions, and lectures.
The first centers will begin operating early next year. The 55 classrooms will be distributed among 39 First Union locations 11 in Charlotte, eight in Florida, five in New Jersey, four in Pennsylvania, four in Virginia, three in Connecticut, and one each in Atlanta, Baltimore, Greensboro, S.C., and Wilmington, Del.
The company has already held one remote class in which customers it would not say how many called in to ask an expert about a new banking product.
We were very pleased with the number of appointments that the session generated, Ms. Perkins said.
First Union plans to go live with the new Arel teleconferencing software this year, using it first to deliver monthly sales and customer service reports to its employees, as well as to facilitate expanded briefings on management, organization, and new products, Ms. Perkins said.
Kimberly Collins, a senior research analyst at GartnerGroup Inc. of Stamford, Conn., said the sort of program First Union is planning is unique and could tie customers to their banks more tightly, especially as banks expand into insurance and investments.
But banks would have to be nimble in using predictive modeling to offer relevant courses and advice sessions to their customers, Ms. Collins added.