NEW YORK - With the mails flooded with card solicitations and the cost of mailings on the rise, more banks are looking to their branches for an alternative.

Earlier this year, Wachovia Corp. and PNC Bank Corp. each ran successful card promotions in their branches.

Now MasterCard International is moving full-steam ahead with a new program to increase the effectiveness of branch workers as card marketers.

The move is seen as a way for banks to regain some momentum in the battle for market share against big nonbank marketers who have the financial clout to run national advertising campaigns and conduct huge mailings.

By 1995, up to 15,000 branches could be enrolled in MasterCard's new "Wealth of Knowledge" program, said Gary Flood, a vice president in MasterCard's standard card division.

Jeanette Williams, MasterCard's vice president of new market development, said the association is optimistic that the program will help members increase applications and accounts.

During the three-month pilot period, she said, the participating branches reported a 53% increase in applications and a 45% rise in new accounts, compared with the average performance in 1992. According to Ms. Williams, the program was a response to decreasing results from direct mail.

A survey of 25 branches of six different banks, starting in the spring of 1992, uncovered "a real lack of understanding of the contribution that cards make to banks," she said.

Teaching Sales Techniques

Only 6% of bank employees involved in the pilot said that they had prior knowledge of all the card information contained in newsletters that are distributed as part of the program.

The monthly newsletters focus on sales techniques and basic card information.

Half of those surveyed felt more comfortable, self-confident, and knowledgeable selling cards after the training, however.

The program was tested in 135 branches of six banks during the first three months of this year. Eight banks are now participating.

According to representatives of the card association and participating banks, the program gets its message across through the use of enticing and accessible information.

"The key was that it was put together in an entertaining and imaginative way," said Wayne Morlock, a vice president for Marine Midland Bank and a member of the committee that developed the pilot program.

For example, he mentioned that each newsletter included a crossword puzzle based on the educational information that employees were encouraged to fill out and submit for a sweepstakes drawing through MasterCard.

For Marine Midland, which rolled out the program in its 313 New York branches in early August. the initiative "brought the whole branch system together as a team," Mr. Morlock said.

"We wanted to show the branches that we're here to back them up," Mr. Morlock said.

Eventually, MasterCard hopes to encompass more products, including debit and business cards in the educational effort.

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