In the wake of its purchase last year of St. Louis-based Boatmen's Bancshares, NationsBank Corp. is trying to standardize the way it serves small-business customers across the country.

"It's a big push," said Pamela Hubby, NationsBank senior vice president for small business. "We want to get the customers the product they need and make sure we are easy to do business with."

Using the same loan applications, documents, and computer systems in all its branches will help in processing loan requests faster and providing better customer service, Ms. Hubby said. She said the company tries to make loan decisions within 48 hours.

"As we have grown, our small-business customers might have thought we have not been as receptive to them as we needed to be," she said. "That's why we decided to focus more emphasis on this customer group.

"When you have 750,000 small-business customers, you really don't want to ignore them."

At midyear 1997 the Charlotte, N.C.-based banking company was the nation's No. 1 small-business lender, with $7.1 billion outstanding in 320,000 small-business loans, according to Sheshunoff Information Services.

Wells Fargo & Co. of San Francisco was No. 2, with 308,000 loans totaling $4.6 billion, and Banc One Corp., Columbus, Ohio, came in third, with 106,000 loans for $4.4 billion

NationsBank said it has updated its Internet home page, branch computer system, and telephone call center to better process small-business loans.

Les Dinkin, director of the New York-based consulting firm Oliver, Wyman & Co., said these technology improvements will help boost NationsBank's loan volume.

"They are using every possible channel to reach out to customers," Mr. Dinkin said. "It makes it easier for customers to apply for loans."

To make loan decisions faster, NationsBank installed a new computer system in its branches in seven states and in Washington, D.C.

The $315 billion-asset company operates in 16 states and the District of Columbia.

The new system allows branch employees to fill out small-business loan applications for customers at desktop computers. Previously, branch employees gave customers paper loan forms to complete.

Ms. Hubby said she expects branches in the eight remaining midwestern states, formerly part of Boatmen's territory, to begin using the new computer systems by yearend.

NationsBank now process 20,000 small-business loan applications a month through its branches, telephone call centers, and business bankers. That is triple the number of applications it processed each month in 1997, she said.

The company also received three loan applications through the Internet on April 27, the day they became available on the NationsBank home page.

The company currently takes on-line applications from customers on the East Coast and Texas, and plans to expand the program to the Midwest this year, Ms. Hubby said.

NationsBank trained its call center employees last fall to serve small- business owners, and now takes about 600,000 calls from them a month, among nearly 20 million calls a month from all consumers.

"We have more products and services than almost anybody," Ms. Hubby said. "We just need to figure out how to get them to the customers more effectively."

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