As banks' customers flock to alternative delivery channels, call centers are feeling the strain.

Once viewed as low-tech, backwater operations, call centers are becoming more sophisticated. The aim is to improve service and accommodate heavier traffic.

Experts say call centers' expanding role is proving more difficult than many bankers had expected.

"I think right now we're going through frustration mode," said Ronald Charnock, president of Versatility Inc., a Fairfax, Va.-based supplier of call center systems. "The technology and systems in place simply do not support the new way of doing business over the telephone."

Bank call centers are expected not only to answer customer questions about balances and how to use products such as screen phones but also to generate sales.

"The call center has moved from back-office sales and support to front- end customer service," said William E. Storts, a partner at Andersen Consulting. "What you find is the person behind the phone now has a college degree; it's a career path now."

The rapid shift in how call centers function and what is expected of them has sent banks scrambling for more technological horsepower and better staff training.

Tower Group, a bank technology consulting firm based in Wellesley, Mass., predicts that bank spending on call center technology and services will more than double from yearend 1994 to 2000.

Such spending illustrates how banks of all sizes are grappling with "this issue of how you make the bank employee on the phone more capable of dealing with the myriad questions that might come up," Mr. Charnock said.

Some banks have turned to outsourcing, handing all or part of their call center operations to third parties.

Others have created areas of specialty in their in-house call centers, allowing more technical customer inquiries to be fielded by an expert in the relevant area.

And many are installing software to integrate customer data on older, legacy systems and give customer service representatives more on-screen information.

"It is becoming less and less possible for one customer service representative to know all things about all products," said Edward Neumann, a consultant for Dove Associates in Washington.

At banks that offer on-line banking, for instance, people may call in to ask questions about their modems.

"Customer service has had to get much more technical," Mr. Neumann said. "There's a whole new business developing out of creating software to enable reps to be able to service a greater number of bank products and services."

National City Corp., Cleveland, is among the banks using software known as "middleware" to give birth to a new-generation network of call centers.

The $49 billion-asset company opened the first of nine souped-up call centers in April, and it plans to equip the others one or two at a time during the next year.

"Efficiency has increased," said Beth Kaltenbach, assistant vice president of delivery systems.

Because of the new system, National City's customer service representatives are "able to take more calls and able to answer questions more quickly for the customer because they have better information," Ms. Kaltenbach said.

Under the old system, information about specific customers was stored on a variety of computer systems, and bank representatives might have to check more than one location to find answers to questions. Under the new system, all customer information appears on a single screen.

"It has automated transactions so they can be done on-line rather than having to do manual paperwork after the call is wrapped up," Ms. Kaltenbach said.

This consolidation of customer information has turned National City's call centers into sales tools. Customer service representatives who once did nothing but field inquiries are being retrained to cross-sell.

Instead of merely supplying information about account balances and check clearings, the system gives call-takers prompts and cues, suggesting products that might be of interest to the caller and calling up sales scripts.

Edward Boulay, a senior product marketing manager at Early, Cloud & Co., an International Business Machines Corp. subsidiary that offers call center technology, said he regards the sales push as "the most significant trend."

Francisco Sauza, a senior consultant at Speer & Associates in Atlanta, said banks are trying to turn their customer service employees into salespeople. The key is "middleware," which ties together disparate systems to create a single data base, viewable from a call center workstation, for total customer service.

"One of the ideas behind these middleware solutions is for the banks to provide additional information to telephone bankers - sales representatives - so that they answer the questions from the customers and also try to sell some other products," Mr. Sauza said.

The shift has not been easy. Much of the banking industry resists the changeover to a "sales culture."

According to Jay Cross, vice president of Omega Performance Inc., Sausalito, Calif.: "Bankers tend to think of telemarketers as schlocky people selling magazine subscriptions during supper.

"In fact, people don't mind hearing from their banker."

Banks that install fancy middleware for their call centers often feel they are not getting maximum value from the vast body of data they have assembled for their customer service force, Mr. Cross said.

"This is an area that the really big banks are clamoring for help on," he said.

At BankAmerica Corp., introduction of an elaborate home banking program for personal computers and the Internet has led to creation of an entirely separate call center unit for questions from those users.

But at smaller banks, customer service representatives tend to be generalists who must field all inquiries. At Telebank, an Arlington, Va., institution that does business exclusively over the phone, representatives are expected to give everything from balance information to explanations of Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. coverage.

"Our training is very much geared toward presentation, cross-selling products, and being the best you can be with a customer," said Howard C. Witt, director of sales and marketing at Telebank. He called the representatives - "Telebankers" - "walking, breathing, marketing pieces."

"We can have the most sophisticated equipment in the land," Mr. Witt said, "but unless those reps can connect with the customer on the phone, it doesn't matter. They have to quickly establish a rapport."

As banks encourage customers to move from branches to alternative channels, customer service representatives are evolving into the tellers of the future.

Recognition that a telephone voice is likely to become a customer's primary bank contact is leading banks to take their investments in call centers very seriously.

"One of the reasons alternative delivery - home banking - has failed in the past is that it wasn't supported adequately with customer service," said Mr. Neumann of Dove Associates. "In fact, it has to be supported 24 hours a day. You can't ask consumers to use it 24 hours a day if you're not going to back it up."

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