Wachovia Corp. is gearing up to market its investment products and services by telephone.

The $45 billion-asset banking company, based in Winston-Salem, N.C., intends to mobilize at least 33 investment counselors for the effort, which is to begin in the second half of 1996, executives said.

The counselors, operating from a call center in Columbia, S.C., now play a more passive role, fielding inquiries from Wachovia's customers and brokers.

"We've made the commitment to hire registered representatives, and that positions us to take additional steps," said Carole L. Moser, vice president and manager of the call center. Those next moves include "doing some telemarketing and reaching out to customers who are not customers with Wachovia," she explained.

The initiative is still in its early stages, executives said. For now, the emphasis is on beefing up services to existing customers.

To accomplish that, Wachovia recently merged another call center, in Winston-Salem, with the Columbia operation.

The move paves the way for the center, which now operates weekdays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., to shift to a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week schedule by about midyear, Ms. Moser said.

Its staff of 51, including the 33 investment counselors - all of whom have Series 7 stockbroker licenses from the National Association of Securities Dealers - will soon be bolstered by an undetermined number of hirings, she said.

The telephone counselors can now give customers almost any investment service, short of opening an account from scratch or immediately executing a trade, Ms. Moser said.

And the bank's 138 branch-based brokers can tap a team of four in-house experts, or wholesalers, who can answer questions about Wachovia's proprietary Biltmore Funds.

Wachovia's exclusive use of Series 7-licensed representatives to sell investment products - both in its branches and over the phone - sets it apart from many other banks.

Powerful rivals, including First Union Corp., Charlotte, N.C., are increasingly relying on less sophisticated and lower-cost bank employees to sell and support nondeposit products.

"It is not inexpensive, but it's an expense we feel is well worth the money," said Ellen S. Sartin, executive vice president in charge of the call center.

She declined to specify the admittedly substantial personnel costs but said they were needed to sell investment products effectively.

"Everything is more complicated than a normal checking account," Ms. Sartin said. "That's the reason to get them Series 7 licenses. It gives them knowledge and confidence."

But substituting a toll-free call for basic face-to-face help may weaken the fragile bond between broker and customer, said John P. Sousa 4th, president of Investment Program Management, Henderson, Nev.

Worse yet, it could train customers to defect to direct-marketed no-load funds.

"If I were a bank broker, I wouldn't want anybody else talking to my customer," unless it was to refer me new ones, Mr. Sousa said. "That could be a home run."

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