The ACSI, one of the broadest measurements of customer experiences, released its report Tuesday on the finance and insurance sectors, based on input from roughly 6,800 Americans about more than 230 companies. For several of the industries involved, the news isn't good.
Customer satisfaction scores for retail banks dropped 2.6 percent, nearly reversing two years of improvement. Overall happiness with health insurers fell for the first time in three years, dropping 4.1 percent to an industry score that's only a notch above America's most-reviled industries: airlines, cable companies and Internet service providers. Meanwhile, dissatisfaction with higher premiums led to lower scores for other insurers, such as life, home and auto insurance providers.
Americans are much happier, meanwhile, with their credit unions, which held steady with the second highest industry score of all. And fueled by a booming stock market, satisfaction with online brokerages ticked upward, with scores rising 2.5 percent in 2014.
And yet, the research found a growing unease with banks. According to the report, this was partly due to less competitive interest rates and harder-to-find branches and ATMs. Leaders in these industries might also want to work on how quickly financial transactions are completed, how courteous and helpful their staff are with customers, and how easy it is to understand information and make changes to accounts — all factors that got poorer scores this year.
The dip in customer satisfaction also coincides with a rise in fees, said ACSI Director David VanAmburg, particularly among smaller banks, where scores fell the most. The ACSI measures customer satisfaction by asking about both the quality of the service a customer receives and the value they believe they're getting. Fees are playing both a direct and indirect role in shaping those impressions, VanAmburg said. On the one hand, customers are unhappy with banks that make them pay fees. On the other, banks that charge fewer fees often do so by cutting into service levels, which also yields unhappy customers.
"As banks try to get fees and aren't successful at doing so, they have to cut costs — reducing the number of branches, downsizing staff — which results in lower satisfaction scores," VanAmburg said.
Even with a significant drop in their scores, regional and smaller banks still did better than all of their big national peers. Among the four largest banks, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup were tied for the highest score, Wells Fargo came in second and Bank of America last. With the exception of JPMorgan Chase, whose score dipped three percent from 2013, the banks' scores held steady from the year before.
An e-mail to JPMorgan Chase about the drop was not immediately returned. A Bank of America spokesman said that ACSI's data showed it was making progress in some categories, "but we know we still have some work left to do."
Health insurers, meanwhile, saw their lowest score since 2005. They have never done well in the index — the complexity, frequent use of claims processes and high costs of health insurance have long made them part of an industry consumers love to hate. Yet among the major health insurers studied, UnitedHealth was on top, seeing a three percent gain from the year before. Aetna received the lowest score, with a six percent drop in its customer satisfaction figure from 2013. (Aetna was not immediately able to respond to the report.)
ACSI attributed this to higher costs and limited choice for group plans. While the effect of the Affordable Care Act on customer satisfaction is unclear, VanAmburg said it's possible all the recent attention given to health insurance in the wake of the Affordable Care Act could be playing a role in customers' increasingly negative views. "It's just a constant noise, a constant buzz, that is seldom positive. It can have a negative impact overall on how customers perceive even their actual experiences."
If there's a key lesson for industry leaders from the report, VanAmburg said, it's that technology can majorly improve customer satisfaction. While there are exceptions (self check-out lines, for instance, can often frustrate consumers), in many ways Web sites, chat help and other tech tools have been able to address customers' needs more smoothly. Banks, he said, have been particularly good at adding these features over the years, allowing much to be done online without having to go to a branch or make a phone call.
"The extent to which companies can help us satisfy ourselves — essentially, let us provide our own customer service — [works] very much to their advantage," VanAmburg said. "Let's face it. As long as technologies work, they can't have a bad day."