Equipped with telephones, computers, and fax machines, nine Bank Atlantic Bancorp. employees are calling customers to promote the thrift's small-business products. Bank Atlantic, a $2.7 billion-asset thrift in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., set up a bare-bones call center in the fall and devotes nearly half the employees' time to phoning business owners, said Steven Hickman, executive vice president for community banking.

Most larger banks with telephone call centers, such as PNC Bank Corp. or First Union Corp., use them to take loan requests and sell small-business products directly to customers. But Bank Atlantic's employees refer customers to the branch staff.

"We're trying to find a need and put a business banker in front of them to fulfill that need," Mr. Hickman said. "We use a community banking style." At Sept. 30, Bank Atlantic had $556 million, or a quarter of its loan portfolio, in commercial loans, including commercial real estate loans. Bank Atlantic's call center employees gather the information needed for a loan application or a new account but then fax the data to a branch, where the customers meet a banker and sign the documents. "Small-business owners want face-to-face contact with their banker," Mr. Hickman said. "They can't build a relationship like that over the phone." Bank Atlantic spent about $3,000 on basic equipment for each call center employee, said Ellen Schlafer, senior vice president for sales management.

The call center uses an automated system to give customers balance information, Ms. Schlafer said, but the center does not have a program to automatically dial customers' phone numbers.

"It's not high-tech," she said.

Smaller institutions typically spend $1 million to set up more sophisticated call centers, said Brad Adrian, senior project manager for Mentis Corp., a Durham, N.C., research firm. Mr. Adrian said the largest banks in the country spend as much as $5 million a year to maintain their call centers, which usually have computers equipped with loan processing software, on-line links to credit bureaus, and data bases of information on each customer.

Nearly 60% of financial institutions with deposits of $500 million to $1 billion have call centers. Three-quarters of institutions with deposits of $1 billion to $10 billion have call centers, as do 93% of institutions with more than $10 billion of deposits.

Bank Atlantic's call center employees were plucked from other customer service jobs at the thrift or had previous telemarketing jobs. They are expected to make 200 calls a day, which usually produce three sales, Ms. Schlafer said.

"It's critical that we hire very upbeat, positive people who understand rejection and don't take it personally," she said. The bank spends three weeks training each employee about the benefits of all the thrift's products and then has weekly quizzes on particular offerings, Ms. Schlafer said.

The call center employees focus on one product at a time, she said. Right now, they are calling the thrift's mortgage customers to ask whether they want to refinance at lower rates. Next, they will promote 24-hour approval of small-business loans, she said.

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