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American Express No. 1 in customer service survey

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American Express trumped other major issuers -- for the fourth year in a row -- in customer service satisfaction in the 2010 Credit Card Satisfaction Study, conducted by J.D. Power and Associates, released today. Rounding out the top five in successive positions were Discover Card, U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo and BarclayCard. HSBC ranked last of the top 10 issuers.

Credit card companies customer service rankings

J.D. Power and Associates defines customer interaction as the degree cardholders are kept informed of new products, as well as the "responsiveness to questions or requests, and time spent helping them understand their options." As of today, here’s how some major creditors rank:

Credit card issuer rankings

Issuer Overall satisfaction Interaction
American Express 1 1
Discover 2 2
U.S. Bank 3 3
Wells Fargo 4 4
Chase 5 6
Barclaycard 6 5
Bank of America 7 8
Capital One 7 7
Citi 9 10
HSBC 10 9

Consumer loyalty is on a downslide, but overall customer satisfaction "has rebounded from a three-year low in 2009," according to a news release about the annual survey.

J.D. Power and Associates, a marketing and information firm, defines customer interaction as the degree cardholders are kept informed of new products, as well as the "responsiveness to questions or requests, and time spent helping them understand their options."

"In today's economic environment, customers want to feel that they are getting more for their money from companies that truly value their business and respond to their needs," says Jim Bush, an executive vice president for American Express.

In the 2010 survey, credit card satisfaction averaged 714 on a 1,000-point scale, up from 705 in 2009. On the flip side, customers who say they will not switch cards in the near future decreased from 25 percent in 2009 to 22 percent in 2010.

"Despite massive efforts by the credit card industry during the past year to educate customers about credit card terms as a part of the CARD Act, customers' grasp of those terms continues to be elusive," said Michael Beird, director of banking services at J.D. Power, in a news release. "Sixteen percent of card customers report that they did not receive CARD Act disclosures. Among those who did, only two-thirds state that the disclosures improved their understanding of how the act affects their individual circumstances. Furthermore, only one-third of cardholders say they 'completely' understand their credit card terms."

"For credit cards, the most important thing to me is customer service," says Nancy Napurski, president of Lionheart Communications out of Rochester, N.Y. According J.D. Power, Napurski's attitude is the norm. In fact, its annual credit card satisfaction study released today found that the way a financial institution interacts with its customers is a primary factor in whether the company inspires rants or raves.

Customer service qualities cardholders love

Here are five fundamental signs of outstanding call center interaction:

1. Practical prompts, plus easy access to a real person. Most cardholders accept that they'll have to navigate a creditor's automated phone system to some degree. However, wading through excess numerical prompts, trying to find one that fits (and then failing) is a recipe for fury. And when they want to address a problem or request something out of the ordinary, they want to be connected to a live human -- fast. Discover's automated phone system ranks especially high in the study, because, says Ed Stolbof, the company's senior vice president of customer service and engagement, "customers can always hit zero and get to an account manager in less than 60 seconds."

2. Short wait time. It's helpful when a recorded voice explains how long the wait to get connected to a representative will be, but what happens when the hold time exceeds three minutes? Frustration builds as customer service ranking drops. Steven Sashen, owner of InvisibleShoe.com out of Boulder, Colo., says a short hold time indicates that a credit card company actually cares its customers. He has a Bank of America card and says his experiences with the company in this regard are so good, "I'm almost embarrassed to say how much I've loved dealing with them." 

3. Empowered, understandable employees. When a problem needs resolution, cardholders want to speak with an authoritative employee right away, not get transferred to a higher-up. Therefore credit card companies that staff phone lines with can-do people win devotion. "I absolutely love American Express," says Marci Geller co-owner of the record label Sonic Underground, located in Stoneybrook, N.Y. "I always get an intelligent person on the phone. I've had experience with others where I had to explain the entire situation over and over again with another person but none could do anything."

Clear communication is integral to the customer service experience. The study found that while the main reason customers don't understand their phone representative is due to the representative speaking with an accent, the lowest levels of satisfaction are associated with representatives who simply do not articulate well or speak clearly.

4. Proactive intervention. Cardholders universally praise customer service employees who go above the call of duty, especially in emergencies. For example, Elizabeth Wilson, from Atlanta, is enthusiastic about American Express because of what they did after her cards were stolen. Someone found her AmEx card in some rubbish and called the customer service line. That employee didn't just alert her, he notified the police. "It was the quick actions of AmEx customer service that allowed me to retrieve everything else that had been thrown in that trash bin by the thieves," says Wilson.

5. A caring demeanor. A concerned attitude creates devotees. For example, Mike Gaynes, a business consultant from Moss Beach, Calif., says he's had his AT&T Universal card since the early '90s, and "would never give it up because in dozens of customer service encounters they've been absolutely faultless. The representatives are always nice and responsive on the phone." Geller also gushes about American Express employees. "I always get a person on the phone who is kind and helpful. I have always been treated with respect and professionalism. I am a member for life!"

Discover's No. 2 position is no accident, says Stolbof, explaining, "When customers call us we have already thought through most of their problems." Keeping employees happy and providing them with training and encouragement is also key to Discover's success in customer service. Discover's customer service representatives "are the most tenured in the industry and we offer an awful lot of training. They feel empowered to take care of our customers."

See related: J.D. Power: Growing numbers dissatisfied with credit cards, J.D. Power: AmEx leads the pack in customer satisfaction

Published: August 19, 2010


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