SunTrust Banks Inc. said it will consolidate 18 telebanking centers into four expanded locations to strengthen service and sales while streamlining operations.

Officials at $55.5 billion-asset SunTrust, which operates in four southeastern states, said the project will standardize hours of operation and types of service, which now vary significantly from center to center.

The project marks a reversal of sorts for SunTrust, which has long favored decentralized operations. Moreover, the move will position it alongside the scores of regional banking companies pouring money into large telebanking systems as an alternative to branches.

"It's a big change for them, at least philosophically," said Moshe A. Orenbuch, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

SunTrust's expanded centers, to be located in Atlanta, Nashville, Orlando, and Miami, are being equipped with new technological features. In addition, SunTrust will increase its total service center staff from about 300 to more than 400 and will offer 24-hour service, seven days a week, said John J. McGuire, president and chief executive officer of SunTrust Online, a new unit that houses PC banking, Internet, and telebanking operations.

SunTrust officials would not disclose the cost of the year-long consolidation project, which begins this month. But Mr. McGuire and SunTrust president L. Phillip Humann said the consolidation and the technological upgrades are significant advancements for SunTrust.

"Our customers will get much better and more service. With the technology we're putting in, we'll have a more proactive sales tool ... and the consolidation will bring down relative costs," said Mr. Humann.

The technological improvements slated for SunTrust's centers include: enhanced voice response capabilities; an upgraded system for handling standard requests such as check-clearing and balance information; and a new service that allows customers to stop payment on checks electronically and get faxed copies of statements.

SunTrust is also exploring the possibility of adding electronic voice recognition capability so customers can access service without having to press a series of telephone keys and listen to several computer message options.

"It's expensive, but if we can save telephone time, we may be able to have it pay for itself," said Mr. McGuire.

SunTrust expects the consolidated centers to field some 40 million calls in 1998, a 20% increase over 1997's call volume, said Mr. McGuire.

Analysts said the consolidation will probably add to costs in 1998, but expenses and revenues over the long haul will depend on how well SunTrust implements the changes.

"It's a tool to get the job done, but it's not an end in itself," said Mr. Orenbuch.

Sean Ryan, an analyst at Bear, Stearns & Co., said the net impact on profits will be related to whether and how customers use the new centers.

"Making alternative delivery work is a real challenge. If you're just adding on, then it really isn't too effective," Mr. Ryan said. "If you're using it to displace higher-cost delivery, then you're on to something."

SunTrust is offering employees at telebanking centers it will close the option to relocate. And it is considering whether to allow some employees to work from home.

The company has been experimenting with telecommuting in Nashville, where 15 call center employees handle customer service calls from their homes.

"We may be able to retain an even greater number of people if we do that," said Mr. McGuire. "The big challenge is managing a staff of people that are not within eyesight."

Mr. McGuire said SunTrust's move to consolidate was fueled by customer demand.

"The whole evolution of serving customers over the telephone has grown rapidly over the last few years, and the demand has proved to be so great and so strong that we decided we needed to respond in a more coordinated manner."

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