Stealing a page from airlines, which use frequent-flier miles to entice passengers, a Michigan bank has started a rewards program for its customers.

Farmington Hills-based Michigan National Bank, the $9.6 billion-asset unit of National Australia Bank Ltd., last week began offering retail customers a chance to earn points toward discounts for bank products and services.

The Relationship Rewards program lets customers earn one point for every $100 of account balances. The minimum amount required to enter the program is $2,500, and that sum can come from loans or deposits, personal trust or brokerage account balances.

The smallest reward, for earning 360 points, is a free check order, valued at $10 to $20. Customers with 12,000 points can earn up to $400 off a mortgage origination fee.

Though incentives are not new in banking or financial services, Mark Harwood, Michigan National's manager of consumer services, said he believes the point system is rarely used by banks. Credit card companies and hotels have point systems to win rewards, but only a handful of banks have used similar programs.

Mr. Harwood said the idea for the program resulted from a consumer survey of several thousand customers and noncustomers who were asked what they would like from their bank. The impetus was to keep customers and sell them more Michigan National products, Mr. Harwood said.

First American Corp. started a point-system rewards program in 1996 that has been extremely popular, said Wendy Gamble, supervisor for the Nashville company's program, SelectRewards.

Ms. Gamble said customers win prizes ranging from golf balls and T- shirts to round-trip airfare on one of three airlines. For other rewards, customers pick items from a Service Merchandise catalogue.

Rodgers L. Harper, managing vice president of First Manhattan Consulting Group, said reward programs can be very good techniques for singling out profitable customers. "I think the notion of rewarding a customer for the right behavior is getting a lot more attention," Mr. Harper said.

The First American program is particularly good, Mr. Harper said, because it offers material items, which are better for attracting customers than price breaks on products. First American studied customer profitability to figure out a scale for granting awards and test-marketed the program on its employees, Mr. Harper said. First American's program was designed to attract new customers, according to Ms. Gamble.

Michigan National, however, is reaching out to a broad base of existing customers by starting the point system with a relatively low balance requirement. "We're not trying to target our super wealthy," Mr. Harwood said. "We targeted a large portion of our customer base."

A Michigan National competitor, however, said point systems are not the best way to attract or retain customers.

"I'm definitely a proponent of rewarding customers," said Michael Tierney, senior vice president for retail product management at Detroit- based Comerica Inc. "How you tactically do it is the question."

Comerica introduced two new packaged "relationship accounts" last November that reward customers with large deposit or loan balances by waiving certain fees or providing free checking. Mr. Tierney said he believes most customers find point-system programs too complicated.

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