KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It's the sort of mail most folks don't look forward to receiving: A notice from a credit card company that you haven't been paying your bills.

But Discover Card has tried to soften the blow by using greeting cards created by Hallmark Cards Inc. for some customers who have missed payments.

Discover says the cards are intended to let people know the company may be able to help, not bully them into paying their bills.

"It's just our way of sending them just a very soft reminder that if they are behind in their payments, we are there for them," Discover spokeswoman Jennifer Kang said.

The first card Hallmark created for Discover in late 2001 featured a painting of a stream in a wooded area. Inside the card said, "I don't know about you, but I find that life often takes sudden turns, many times without warning. Please know that at Discover Card we understand life's unexpected detours and are dedicated to serving you in any way we can. Give us a call so we can work through this together."

Scott Robinette, president of Hallmark Loyalty, a division of the Kansas City-based greeting card company that helps businesses retain customers, said Discover has taken a bad situation and put a good spin on it.

"Discover didn't want to alienate those customers just because something has come up potentially that has made it difficult for them to pay," Robinette said. "You know, we've all been there probably at one form or time in our life, where we got behind in making payments."

Robinette said Hallmark has done similar projects for other financial services companies, although he declined to provide details or names.

Arun Jain, chairman of the marketing department at the University at Buffalo School of Management, said preserving relationships with existing customers is important for businesses because acquiring new ones is expensive.

"Once you build a relationship with a customer, then you can sell additional products to them, they recommend you to others, cost of serving goes down, they become less sensitive to price," Jain said. "In the beginning, you may end up paying to acquire them, but if you have selected the right type of customer, they become profitable. If you keep on losing your existing customers, the company will go nowhere."

And by using Hallmark's cards, Discover is tapping into the sentiment many Americans already have about that company.

"This emotional bond has been created," Jain said, "so if you give somebody a Hallmark card, the person will say that you must have cared about them."

Besides, he said, the cards actually might lead some people to pay their bills faster.

"They are using the softer approach to make me feel guilty that I should be sending my money back to them, or start making payments," Jain said.