To increase the utility of its call center, KeyCorp is testing customer receptiveness to automated sales pitches.

The Cleveland banking company recently completed a month-long information-gathering phase in which 15,000 users of its voice response unit, or VRU, heard targeted sales messages. Half the users heard full- blown pitches, lasting 20 to 30 seconds, and half heard six-second teasers with instructions for how to get more information.

By analyzing responses to the promotion, KeyCorp hopes to learn what kinds of marketing messages entice customers and what kinds annoy them. The goal is to generate product sales through automated channels.

Selling through the touch-tone banking channel makes sense on at least one level, said Dina Vance, senior consultant at Lombard, Ill.-based FTR Inc., a bank technology firm. "Eighty percent of calls dead-end into the VRU, and there's a lot of sales opportunity there," she said.

However, the messages delivered through the automated system must be carefully crafted, she said. If an automated voice starts "rambling" during a sales pitch, many customers will summarily dismiss the message.

Michael Riley, vice president at Mercer Management Consulting in New York, echoed that sentiment. He noted that many customers use touch-tone banking services to quickly perform basic transactions like checking balances.

If a bank adds marketing messages, Mr. Riley said, "people may say, 'I got on the phone to do something else. If I were really interested, I would have called or gone to a branch.'"

KeyCorp executives said they are aware of the potential pitfalls of automated call center sales.

The company plans to use the information gathered in the pilot program to create sales pitches that customers will find useful rather than repellent. As part of this effort, it is using its data base system, Max, to create messages tailored to individual customers.

Customers "are using the phone for everything," said Todd Thompson, senior vice president of marketing at KeyCorp. "This is one of the few ways we can reach these people."

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