SAN FRANCISCO - Banks' newfound aggressiveness in charging fees is not stopping with automated teller or even live teller transactions. It is carrying over into telephone centers.
Though it may be too early to declare it a national trend, the signals emanating from the West Coast - from retail banking giants BankAmerica Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. - are unmistakable.
On certain transactions, typically by customers who exceed a predetermined monthly quota of customer service requests, the banks are charging 50 cents for an automated voice-response call and $1.50 when a live operator is involved.
The practice fits in with the increasingly prevalent incentive pricing strategies that came to nationwide attention earlier this year with First Chicago Corp.'s vilified $3 fee for certain teller transactions. The banks are trying to steer customers to less costly delivery systems - such as automated teller machines for routine cash withdrawals - while freeing service representatives to deal with more complex, and presumably more profitable, interactions with customers.
For low-profit customers, who may be categorized as "high transactors" without compensating balance income, First Chicago and others generally allow a small number of free transactions before imposing transaction fees.
At the same time, many banks have lowered or eliminated fees for automated transactions, including those done via the automated telephone response systems that accept touch-tone commands.
Banks began charging for calls to telephone service centers four to six years ago, according to Betsy Cotton, consumer program director at California's Public Interest Research Group in San Francisco.
But "over the past year, we've been seeing it a lot more," she said.
Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and the latter's Seafirst affiliate in Washington State are on the call-center fee bandwagon. Rival First Interstate Bancorp does not charge any fees for telephone banking.
BankAmerica's fees kick in when a customer exceeds six calls per month, Wells Fargo's after three calls. The banks don't charge for stop payments or address changes entered over the phone.
"More than 90% of our customers do not exceed six calls per month," said Harvey Radin, a spokesman for BankAmerica, which instituted the fees a year and a half ago.
"This affects the small number of people who use telephone services chiefly for check balancing," he said.
Though telephone call centers have delivered on their promise as a lower-cost alternative to branch services, bankers are taking ever-more- sophisticated approaches to analyzing their customer profitability, overhead costs, and delivery system structures.
Many bankers are concluding that while automation has increased their ability to handle transactions in growing volumes, it has not actually reduced costs, said Chuck Bruney, senior vice president at Speer & Associates, an Atlanta-based consulting firm.
"In our experience with many of our clients, the overall number of transactions the banks are handling is climbing, without a comparable reduction of costs in the branch network," Mr. Bruney said.
He pointed out that as call center volumes go up, there is no corresponding decline in branch overhead - at least not in the short run.
Similarly, banks' deployment of ATMs created a new wave of transactions without a one-for-one replacement of branch activity. As the industry came to understand ATM economics, transaction fees emerged, initially based primarily on ATM costs but recently being adjusted to fit into broader retail transaction strategies.
"From a strategic standpoint, (charging fees for telephone calls) makes sense, but the banks want to downplay it," Mr. Bruney said.
He said the fees are really aimed at customers seen as abusing the services available to them.
Consumer advocates say that even if there are abusers, the fees are excessive.
Ms. Cotton of the California Public Interest Research Group said a banker told her that some customers call in several times a day, overburdening the computer systems. But she added, "It couldn't cost what they're passing on to the consumer."
"Even though banks are saving money through ATMs, telephone banking, and computerized balance calculations, they are realizing they can charge consumers fees because the automated technology is geared for billing people," said Edward Mierzwinski, consumer project director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington.
Phone banking has gotten popular as consumers redefine convenience. The American Banker/Gallup consumer survey last year showed that almost two- thirds of bank customers had used a telephone service. Payment Systems Inc. said this year that one-third of U.S. households currently use telephone banking, mostly for balance inquiries and seeing if a check has cleared.
According to the American Bankers Association's 1995 Retail Banking Survey Report, banks with $1 billion or more of assets handled 6.291 million telephone inquiries in 1994.
Sixty-five percent were handled by voice response systems, 26% by centralized service representatives, and 9% by customer service representatives in branches.
The survey found that it cost the same banks an average of 24 cents to handle a telephone inquiry via automated voice response, $1.82 if a call center representative did the work, and $2.93 if a representative in a branch answered the call.