First Union Corp. said Monday that it will soon become the first major bank to use speech-recognition technology in serving its retail and investment customers.

The Charlotte, N.C., banking company purchased 3,700 units for its Enterprise call center from SpeechWorks International Inc., a Boston company whose clients include financial services companies such as E-Trade and Fidelity Investments as well as the likes of America Online, Amtrak, BellSouth, and Continental Airlines.

The technology will help First Union provide faster service to customers seeking to transfer funds, buy and sell equities, check mutual funds, and handle retirement plans by phone, the banking company said.

Aaron Gani, vice president of the Enterprise center, said his operation handles 110 million calls a year. The speech-recognition system, which is to begin operating in October, will shorten service calls and on-hold time as well as reduce the touch-tone system's workload, he said.

"We want to give our customers enhanced services while attractingfuture customers who realize the importance of quick and easy access to account information and funds," Mr. Gani said.

Though voice recognition will be available to all First Union customers, its investment clients stand to benefit the most, said Mark Holthouse, a senior vice president at SpeechWorks.

"Let's be honest, touch-tone service is painful to the point of nonuseful for day traders and people with more complex banking needs," Mr. Holthouse said. "Now, you can buy and sell with a phone call. You can manage your 401(k) plan and change percentage allocations with a phone call. And you can check out your mutual funds with an automated phone call."

Mr. Holthouse said he has been working with First Union for two years in several pilot programs to refine the technology. He said SpeechWorks is conducting pilots with other banks, including Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. He would not name any others.

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