I often use the story of the bank employee who finishes 50 years at his job and is asked, as he receives his gold watch, "What is the greatest change you have seen in banking in your 50 years?"

He thinks a minute and then answers: "Air conditioning."

I recently got a similar surprise when from an old friend who has been a banker for over 40 years.

We were talking about the changes in the industry, and he mentioned E- mail as one of the most valuable.


"Since we can now leave messages on the screen as to what we want and what answers we need, we can get responses without playing telephone tag or needing secretaries and message-takers," my friend said.

"We just type in our business, send the message out at a stroke to as many people as are involved, and then wait for the E-mail answers.

"It saves the bank a bundle."

I was thinking: Isn't this something we could have done years ago, without waiting for E-mail, if we had handled the phone system more sensibly?

Making the most of the telephone can be a quick and easy way to boost income and improve customer relations.

Let's look at the example my friend gave.

A phone call requires someone to pick up the phone on the other end; my friend can leave E-mail messages without chaining the recipients to their desks.

All too often we play phone tag until we find the person we want. But why couldn't we do with phone messages what we do with E-mail? A good phone message would just eliminate a step.

People who teach telephone skills for a living offer tips like these:

*Those who field calls should identify themselves, take down the caller's name and maybe the reason for the call, and make sure the right person gets the message.

*If the call is a complaint, the rep who takes it should assure the caller that it is being heard and taken seriously.

For example, the rep might repeat some aspect of the complaint, or sympathize by saying "I can understand why this has bothered you."

*Put a smile in your voice; it enhances communication.

We all know that when we are grumpy, our bad humor carries through to everyone we talk to. One CEO tells employees: "If you head for the bank with a mad on - say you had a fight with your spouse - turn around and go home."

*Finally, a bank might want to initiate a mystery shopper-style program to see how well calls are handled.

Here are some other steps to help you get more bang for your telephone buck.

*Do a periodic audit of phone calls made from the bank's offices to see if employees are using long-distance as a free good. If so, limiting access to long-distance lines may well be a remedy.

*Reexamine policy on collect calls, and restrict them to people directly involved in customer service.

*Check to see if all leased equipment and lines under contract are being properly utilized. Sometimes a bank pays for a line to which no phone has been connected for years. And sometimes an audit will show that a phone paid for every month has disappeared into some employee's den or children's rooms.

*Consider the pay phone can a potential profit center.

Some programs can connect pay phones to a bank's basic lines. The pay- phone user gets a low rate, but the bank pays the phone company much less.

The bank makes money without stirring up the ill-will that some hotels and convenience stores have generated by using off-brand pay-phone companies with outrageous rates.

Each of these steps is a little one, but they can add up.

As the late Sen. Dirksen observed, "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money."

Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of the American Banker and professor of finance at Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.

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