Bank of America ranks low in customer satisfaction

In a year marred by controversy over its Merrill Lynch & Co. acquisition, Bank of America Corp.'s customer satisfaction slumped by 8 percent to the lowest level among big banks, according to an annual report from a national customer service tracker.

Meanwhile, Wells Fargo & Co. saw its customer satisfaction rating climb 1.4 percent after buying Wachovia Corp., although its numbers were lower than the Charlotte bank's past marks. Wells Fargo had the highest rating among big banks, though smaller banks and credit unions scored higher.

The American Customer Satisfaction Index provides annual customer satisfaction scores for companies and industries on a 100-point scale, with 100 representing the best performance. The numbers for banks and credit unions were based on customer evaluations in the fourth quarter of 2009.

Bank of America saw its score from 73 to 67, for its lowest mark since 2000. Two other big banks, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Citigroup Inc., fared only a little better, receiving 68's.

Although Merrill Lynch customers weren't part of the survey, the deal brought financial stress to Bank of America and significant cost-cutting, said David VanAmburg, director of the ACSI, based in Ann Arbor, Mich. "That kind of cost-cutting can have a ripple effect over all of the company," VanAmburg said.

Bank of America spokeswoman Anne Pace said the bank couldn't comment on a report it hadn't seen, although she said the bank is "listening very carefully to what our customers are telling us, and investing more in helping them stay in control of their finances and feel confident in their spending and budgeting decisions." The bank has made changes to overdraft fees and has issued simplified mortgage and credit card statements.

From 2001 to 2008, Wachovia was the top-rated large bank in the ACSI, but it dropped out this year after the Wells Fargo acquisition. Wells' score, which included Wachovia customers, climbed from 72 to 73, for the San Francisco bank's best-ever showing. Wachovia scored a 76 in 2008 and peaked at 80 in 2006.

Wells, not surprisingly, benefited from the addition of Wachovia's more satisfied customers, VanAmburg said. Wells is going slow with the integration, so the real test of the merger's performance will come in the next couple of years, he said.

Kendall Alley, Wells Fargo's Charlotte regional president, said he hadn't seen the numbers yet, but was pleased to hear the combined company was still No. 1 in the ratings. The former Wachovia executive said Wells has already implemented some of the Charlotte bank's practices companywide, including protocols for following up on customer complaints. A former Wachovia executive, Michael Sherck, is now Wells' "customer experience leader."

"As we continue down the path, there continues to be learnings on both sides of the Mississippi about what each company did really well," Alley said. Wells is targeting the second half of 2011 for converting computer systems in Carolinas branches but is still considering changing signs as early as the end of this year, Alley said.

Wells Fargo and other big banks continue to play catch-up with smaller banks and credit unions. The score for smaller banks stayed the same at 80, while credit unions were flat at 84.

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