Hip-deep in merger-related changes from its pending combination with BankAmerica Corp. and its recently completed acquisition of Barnett Banks Inc., NationsBank is overhauling its employee-incentive programs to try to keep customers happy.

Officials of the Charlotte, N.C., company would not discuss specifics of the program changes. But in an internal report to employees, company president Kenneth D. Lewis said that nourishing "mutually satisfying relationships" with customers is key to the company's future.

"Customer retention is a serious and immediate challenge," Mr. Lewis said. "It's time to shift our emphasis from customer transactions to customer relationships."

Large organizations like NationsBank are frequently criticized for failing to appreciate the typical retail customer, industry observers said.

NationsBank, in particular, has taken some public relations hits in recent years over raised fees, the reduction of service at drive-through locations, and its efforts to tie the level of service to a customer's profitability to the company.

Indeed, when the $315 billion-asset company announced its acquisition of Jacksonville, Fla.-based Barnett last fall, competitors big and small began a mad rush to lure away customers with promises of lower prices and better service.

With NationsBank's attention now focused on its combination with BankAmerica, bankers throughout the country are salivating at the chance to steal customers who may get caught up in merger-related turmoil.

"There are a lot of attempts to grab customers in the wake of these mergers," said banking consultant Bert Ely. "That is a very legitimate concern. There is a rule of thumb that you're going to lose 5% of your customers.

"All the big banks have faced a challenge in terms of being able to give good service," he added. "They have to have a certain amount of standardization and bureaucracy because they're a very large organization. The key is how you balance that against service."

NationsBank started rolling out the new incentive program in April after a task force study headed by Eileen M. Friars, president of NationsBank card services.

Central to the new program is an attempt to balance sales incentives against rewards for giving good customer service.

Sales and service will be linked both for individual and team incentive payouts, according to NationsBank.

Customer retention is also the driving force behind the development of "customer care" teams of telephone bankers whose primary responsibility is to handle disgruntled customers.

NationsBank's Richmond, Va., and Atlanta call centers were the first to set up such teams, while a call center in Wichita, Kan., began using a customer care team May 1.

The remainder of NationsBank's nine consumer banking call centers are to have teams in place by yearend, said Tracy D. Boyce, a NationsBank spokeswoman.

"We're fairly new in this process," she said. "But clearly we're pleased with the results."

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