Customers are happier with their banks

By Blake Ellis, staff reporter

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- For the first time in more than three years, consumers say they are happier with their banks.

No, this isn't a joke.

While you can find stories every day about new fees popping up, and credit card interest rates rising as banks squirm under new regulations, consumers have actually become more satisfied with their banking experiences this year, according to research group J.D. Power and Associates' annual survey.

On a 1,000 point scale, customer satisfaction came in at 752 this year, up four index points from last year and the first uptick in sentiment since 2007.

What caused customers to warm up to their banks? Better in-person branch interactions, improved access to detailed account information and more product offerings that fit their lifestyles -- including online and mobile tools, the report indicated.

Even perceptions of banks' brand reputations have gotten better -- the first positive change since 2008.

But just because sentiment improved doesn't mean customers don't still have major gripes. What upset them most this year were the changes banks have been making to fee structures. While the number of customers reported being charged fees actually declined from 53% in 2010 to 43% this year, consumers were less satisfied with the way banks were choosing to impose charges.

This year, 18% of customers said their fee structures had changed in the last year, compared with 16% in 2010. J.D. Power said that changes in fee structures typically cause a customer's overall satisfaction rating to decrease by an average of 84 index points.

Many of the fee changes have come in response of the Card Act, which banned certain fees and required banks to be more transparent when making changes to a customer's account. And now the banks are also bracing for a cap on the fees they charge retailers every time customers swipe their debit cards.

"The well-publicized attempts by banks to recoup lost revenue due to Reg E debit card revisions by dropping free checking and repricing accounts has clearly had a negative effect," said Michael Beird, director of banking services at J.D. Power and Associates. "The good news for consumers, and the challenge for the industry, is that banks are being forced to clearly define the value they're providing for the prices they're charging."

While customers don't like some of the fees banks have added to skirt the new rules and recoup lost revenue, many banks are making up for this by bolstering other areas. Customers reported being happier with their banks' debit card rewards programs, free online banking and mobile banking services.

These products make customers more willing to pay a fee for the services they are receiving -- especially when the bank is upfront about their fees, which more banks seem to be doing according to the results from J.D. Power's survey.

This backs up what other consumer advocacy groups have found. It may appear that more fees are being added, and that interest rates are shooting up. But this is largely because banks are simply being more transparent now, so consumers see the costs upfront, instead of being surprised later on, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau concluded from a federal study.

Meanwhile, customers are finding more ways to air their concerns and are increasingly turning to social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter to post complaints, ask questions or provide feedback. One in eight customers who reported using social media said they used it to contact their bank for service-related issues.

But the banks haven't been as great at communicating, with only 20% of customers receiving responses according the study. And this lack of response is taking a toll on banks' relationships with their customers.

Of the customers who received a reply from their bank, 47% said they would definitely use that bank in the future, compared to 27% of those customers who didn't receive a reply. To top of page

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