NEW YORK (MainStreet) – November was a big moment in the sun for credit unions. Put off by an onslaught of new checking account fees at big banks, and further fueled by populist anger towards Wall Street, thousands Americans committed to joining credit unions as part of the Bank Transfer Day movement. And they had good reason to make the switch: In addition to often being more fee-friendly than banks, credit unions tend to have much more favorable rates on deposits and loans, and members praise the institutions for their customer-friendly ways and community feel.

But it now appears that credit unions, for all their benefits, just aren’t as good as big banks at closing the deal with prospective customers.

Our sister site RateWatch teamed with IntelliShop, a mystery shopper service, to gauge how big banks (those with more than $10 billion in total assets), small banks and credit unions perform when it comes to wooing customers who express interest in opening an account. To conduct the study, IntelliShop sent its shoppers into 120 financial institutions across the country and had them report back on everything from parking availability to the attire and demeanor of the bank or credit union’s representative. What they found revealed a lot about the challenges that smaller institutions face in keeping up with the giants of the banking world.

Who Made the Best First Impression?

The differences become apparent as soon as one walks in the door. Mystery shoppers entering credit unions were immediately greeted by a customer service representative a little more than half the time (53%). By contrast, visitors to large banks were immediately greeted 76% of the time. Smaller banks fell in the middle, with mystery shoppers getting an immediate greeting 63% of the time. It seems that the larger the institution, the more likely it is for a prospective customer to get immediate service.

“It seemed as if they were not looking for new customers,” recounted one mystery shopper after entering a credit union in Michigan. “I actually really wanted to open an account here, but now I am thinking that it is not a good idea. The reception I received was lackluster at best and getting information from the representative was like pulling teeth.”

Did They Ask the Right Questions?

Once prospective customers actually sat down with a representative, the big banks once again showed a more polished approach. The mystery shoppers were given a list of 11 crucial questions they might expect representatives to ask in order to better understand the customer’s needs, including “do you require online banking?” and “how many checks do you write per month?” The large banks were much more consistent than the smaller institutions at asking the right questions to determine a prospective customer’s needs.

For instance, just 20% of the representatives at credit unions thought to ask shoppers whether they wanted a business or personal checking account, compared with half of the representatives at big banks. Likewise, just 20% of the credit union representatives bothered to ask whether the customer would be needing online banking services, compared with 64% of representatives at online banks. And amazingly, 23% of the credit union representatives and 29% of the small bank representatives failed to ask any of the 11 questions on the list, compared with just 2% of representatives at large banks.

“I’m not surprised that we’re hearing that,” says Howard Seibel, a customer acquisition expert and managing director of marketing consultancy Wharton Strategic Services. “I’m sure if you looked at Citibank’s or Bank of America’s training department, you’d find they’ve got more people working there than in an entire credit union.”

He also adds that big banks are increasingly offering incentives to representative who open new accounts, which explains why so many of the mystery shoppers describe encountering enthusiastic representatives at big banks – it’s in these representatives’ best interest to sell you on a new account.

Big Banks Best at Building Customer Confidence

Given how drastically the customers’ first impressions differ between credit unions and big banks, it’s not surprising that prospective customers were more likely to lean toward joining the big bank: 42% of mystery shoppers in the survey left the big banks feeling “confident that this bank would be the right choice,” compared to just 30% who said the same of the credit unions and 22% at the small banks.

As is often the case, first impressions make a big difference, and if customer service is the most important factor for you, then that’s certainly an understandable choice. But if factors like superior fees and rates are what’s driving you to consider switching to a new bank, it might be beneficial to look past your first impression and consider how the competing institutions stack up where it counts.

“The representative… was confident and knowledgeable,” reported one mystery shopper after a visit to a Chase bank in Texas. “Based on my positive experience with the representative, I may consider opening an account at this bank. However, my reservations with joining this bank stem from it being a national bank that is not competitive with their interest rates.”

Matt Brownell is a staff reporter for MainStreet. You can reach him by email at, or follow him on Twitter @Brownellorama.