By Lisa Huber, Daily Press, Newport News, Va. Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News

Apr. 5--At Bell Atlantic-Virginia's directory-assistance centers, seconds can cost the company business.

That is why this week the telephone company began using a new system that cuts the amount of time it takes each operator to answer directory-assistance inquiries. ``We've got to find ways to operate more efficiently without jeopardizing the service we're giving to customers,'' spokesman Paul Miller said. ``A few additional seconds really makes a difference.''

Callers who dial ``411'' will be greeted by a computer, rather than a person, that will record the city or county and name of the number the caller wants. The operator will listen to the recording and come on the line and provide the number. ``Basically, it frees up some time for the directory- assistance operator to take other calls,'' Miller said. ``It allows us to do more with less.''

It does that because operators hear only the information they need to look up the number and don't spend valuable seconds on each telephone call going through the process of requesting the information, Miller said. In addition, callers talking to a computer are less likely to make small talk, which can cost the operator additional time.

Time, which can translate into higher costs, is essential as Bell Atlantic looks to a future that includes more competition, Miller said.

Bell Atlantic also provides long-distance directory assistance services to MCI customers seeking numbers in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Those callers also will use the new system.

However, in January the company lost the contract to provide the same service to AT&T customers. CFW Communications of Waynesboro won the bid with a lower price, Miller said.

The loss is expected to cost the company 60 jobs in Leesburg, where it will close its directory assistance service center. Bell Atlantic's Hampton center, which employs about 250 people, was not affected.

Miller said that callers should not notice a change in the amount of time it takes them to receive the information. END!B3?NN-TELEPHONE

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