Small-business bankers plan to boost sales by using telephone call centers and specialized sales officers in 1998, according to a study due out next month.

Bankers are developing new ways to sell more of their small-business products, according to a Consumer Bankers Association survey of 35 banks.

"Banks are turning inward and asking how to make their products grow and how to increase their profits," said Kevin Toomb, First Union Corp. vice president and small-business marketing manager.

The results of the trade group's annual small-business banking study, conducted by the Washington-based consulting firm Furash & Co., will be presented at a conference in San Antonio on Feb. 1-3. Banks that participated in the study hold more than $2 trillion of assets and include small-business giants Banc One Corp., Norwest Corp., and First Chicago NBD Corp.

Most of the banks surveyed said they supplement the efforts of branch managers with specialized sales officers and telephone call centers. Nearly 70% of the banks have a dedicated sales force for small business, and 32% use telephone centers, up from 24% in the previous year's survey. Twenty- one percent use PC banking and 6% ATM networks to market to small-business owners.

"Right now, bankers are out there trying everything," Mr. Toomb said.

For example, First Union, which makes loans by telephone through three centralized lending centers, plans to introduce specialized telephone call centers to serve small-business owners and will create a specialized sales force this year, Mr. Toomb said.

Though just 39% of the banks surveyed have mailed pre-approved credit offers to small-business owners, they said it was one of the most effective ways to gain customers. Bankers surveyed ranked Wells Fargo & Co. and Banc One, which mail pre-approved loan offers nationwide, among their top rivals.

Intense competition will erode profits at many banks and make them home in on the most cost-effective ways to gain small-business customers, said Kathleen McClave, vice chairwoman and chief executive officer of Furash & Co.

"Small-business profits have been lush in the past, but the banks are going to have to sharpen their pencil and figure out what works best," she said.

Ms. McClave also said banks should spend more time training the branch employees who interact with small-business customers. "Banks have got to focus on their people," she said. "They are going to distinguish the best performers from the also-rans."

The banks surveyed spend the most time training their specialized sales officers, who receive 34 hours a year on average of training in sales skills, new products, and portfolio management, the study found.

The banks' telephone sales staff receive 31 hours of small-business training a year, and branch managers 26 hours. The branch staff gets the least attention, the study found-just 14 hours of small-business training a year.

Twenty-seven of the banks surveyed pay commissions to their branch managers and small-business sales force. But the sales officers tend to be rewarded for increases in loans rather than deposits.

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