Ohio Savings Bank's telephone banking center has received Customer Interface magazine's 2000 Award for Customer Contact Excellence.

The call center, which the $9.5 billion-asset Cleveland bank created in February 1996 in an effort to centralize its service operations, is bringing in more deposits than most of its branches, an executive says.

Customer Interface, an Advanstar Communications publication previously named TeleProfessional, studied call centers in different industries from around the world. An article to appear in the September issue cites Ohio Savings' innovation and management in the category of in-house, business-to-consumer inbound call centers. Winners in other categories include Bank of Montreal, AT&T, Budget Rent-a-Car, and Eircell of Ireland.

"Our virtual branch - from the deposit-based standpoint - is bigger than some of our 50 branches," said Arthur J. Neuman Jr., senior vice president of bank operations at Ohio Savings. "These customers deal with us over the phone and send their deposits to us through the mail. It is profitable because it is easier to conduct business over the phone than going to a branch."

Mr. Neuman said the bank has a comprehensive training program.

"We're unique," he said. "Anyone in the center can answer a call about any product, and that person is also a sales expert" encouraged to cross-sell. Many other organizations use an inbound center for answering questions and an outbound center for initiating sales.

Most of the call center's 115 employees have a college degree or equivalent experience and are hired because they are "personable people who understand what it is to interact," he said.

The center aims to generate 3% of its sales from inbound phone calls and to get more than 45% of customers who ask for information about new accounts to eventually open them. This year it has been "meeting and exceeding" its targets, Mr. Neuman said. All agents are responsible for their own sales follow-up.

In a contest to boost morale and sales, each of the center's seven teams has chosen the name of a country participating in next month's Olympics in Sydney. Employees making the most sales and meeting service goals now through next month will be awarded cash prizes and gold, silver, or bronze medals.

Besides fielding routine questions about products and services, the specialists offer offbeat advice now and then. For instance, they helped Florida customers who were worried that an oncoming hurricane might force their nearest branch to close early, and customers at casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City who asked for a cash advance.

"We're concerned about ex-changing more than financial information," Mr. Neuman said. "Some customers call just to talk to us."

Two years ago Microsoft Consulting Services helped the bank develop its Total Relationship System software, which personal banking specialists can use to view account information and respond quickly to inquiries.

"Our intention is to dazzle the customer," Mr. Neuman said.

The center handles about 5.2 million calls a year from customers in Ohio and through its Amtrust bank divisions in Florida and Arizona. Customers can use the center to open checking, savings, or money market accounts, open and renew certificates of deposit, transfer funds, apply for credit cards, and get account information. About half of the callers use automated voice response instead of talking with a live representative.

Linda Harden, chief operating officer of the Incoming Calls Management Institute, in Annapolis, Md., said it is not unusual to have an inbound-only call center that also cross-sells.

"More and more companies are adopting blended centers" that handle both inbound and outbound calls, she said. "It would be impossible to run a center if you never got back to a customer. That's just the nature of doing business these days."

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