To offset telephone center staff and technology costs, several financial institutions have signed deals with a new provider of phone-related services.

Established by four former Citibank managers, the Raleigh, N.C.-based start-up called Customer Access, provides banks, thrifts, credit unions, and brokerage firms with 24-hour customer service and telemarketing.

The center, opened in March, has been used by United Carolina Bank, Whiteville, N.C., and Westport Financial Corp., Fairfield, Conn., for special projects. Three other banks plan to use the services starting in September, Customer Access officials said.

Don Montoro, senior vice president with Customer Access, said the company was formed in response to the surge in telephone banking, making it difficult for bank staff to keep up with increasing call volumes.

Telephone service centers of the top 100 bank holding companies currently handle more than 140 million calls per month, according to a 1995 Ernst & Young report on technology in banking. The study also predicts that the number of telephone transactions to be handled by these institutions is expected to rise by nearly 80% by the 1998.

Much of this growth is attributed to advances in technology, such as improved automated voice response units. In addition, many institutions are expanding the range of transactions that can be handled over the phone. New transactions often include loan originations, funds transfers, account openings, and initiation of investments.

Since many banks, particularly smaller ones, cannot afford to buy the technology or add the staff required to manage a call center, some are turning to specialty companies to outsource this function.

With the Customer Access service, when customers call their bank's 800 service number, their call is received by a Customer Access call center staffed with teams of telephone representatives trained to handle transactions for particular banks.

The center's call distribution system uses the 800 number dialed by each caller to identify and route calls to the appropriate representatives.

Since the center's computer equipment is tied into a client bank's host system, telephone agents have access to information on customer relationships through their workstations.

The degree to which the call center is involved in service is up to the bank. The center can provide extended service for nights, weekends, and holidays, or handle the majority of a bank's routine service calls.

The bank may want to take over in situations where calls escalate to more serious matters. In such cases, calls can be routed to the bank's internal call center or flagged for later follow-up and mailings.

One of the main benefits of the service cited by customers is the center's ability to more easily absorb sudden surges in call volume.

United Carolina Bank, for example, hired Customer Access to place follow-up calls after the bank sent out promotional mailers for a preapproved credit card.

Janice Young, vice president and director of marketing at the $3.7 billion-asset bank, said the bank decided to outsource because its 10- person call center lacked the manpower and equipment to handle the volume of calls they expected to generate.

Westport Financial Corp., a marketer of annuities, used Customer Access to handle the unpredictable and variable amount of calls they expected to receive in response to their telephone sales program.

Customer Access representatives were used to screen calls to determine if customers were qualified annuity candidates. Only those deemed appropriate prospects were routed to Westport's staff specialists, enabling the company to more efficiently make use of staff, said Allan Stewart, head of Westport's service center.

The Customer Access facility can handle up to 330 telephone representatives, a capacity Mr. Montoro said provides the maximum efficiency with the minimum management overhead.

To keep up with customer demand, the company may be building an additional site sometime next year, he said.

Pricing for the service is done mostly on a per-call basis, depending on expected call lengths.

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