Free Checking Matters, and Other Lessons for Big Banks

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Two years into financial reform, and four years into the one of the largest economic slowdowns in U.S. history, what do Americans really think about the banks they choose to hold their money?

Some fresh data are in and show that, by and large, U.S. financial consumers are increasingly viewing their relationships with their banks as "overall satisfied."

Boston-based ath Power Consulting has the numbers, and they show a 4% increase in client banking satisfaction, to 41% from 37%, over the past year.

There is, of course, no shortage of caveats and variables.

The study reports that the largest surge in approval comes from consumers who do their banking with credit unions.

Big banks did make some progress, with USAA Bank topping the consumer approval list, and mega-banking behemoths such as J.P. Morgan Chase ( JPM) showing significant client approval gains from 2011 to last year. (Chase, alone, saw a 14% rise in favorability ratings, according to ach Power.)

What's really resonating with bank customers these days? What really moves the needle?

While a American Customer Satisfaction Survey last year showed similar gains and decided simply that numbers were up because more customers switched to smaller banks, Frank Aloi, ath Power's chief executive, has a different interpretation: He thinks the uptick in favorability ratings is largely due to a self-driven effort by banks to refocus on customer service in the aftermath of bad press and sour consumer attitudes toward financial services companies after the Great Recession.

"Over the past few years, financial institutions have been driven to become more customer-centric in an effort to retain current customers and attract new prospects -- a response to a tougher regulatory environment and added competition from non-traditional sources," he says. "Our research indicates that these initiatives are beginning to pay off. Even so, there are still numerous areas that show need for improvement, including proactive communication with customers and problem resolution."

Some big issues resonating with bank customers include:
  • Free checking. The banking industry's shift toward fee-for-checking programs has backfired in a big way. Banks are finding that consumers really will leave a bank if they're charged for a savings or checking account. Whatever bank marketing types believe, U.S. banking consumers view free checking as a "primary banking need."
  • Convenience. Bank customers choose a financial institution largely for convenience. Now, banks are offering programs and services that emphasize "ease of use" for consumers. That includes online and ...
  • Mobile banking services. As smartphones proliferate, consumers are insisting that their banks develop a full range of mobile banking services. According to ach Power, 36% of financial consumers viewed mobile banking as an "essential product" last year, compared with 21% in 2011.

The study says that 10% of consumers changed their bank in the past year. Mostly, those departures were linked to higher fees (especially for fees on checking accounts), mediocre customer service, and accounting errors. So banks now have a better picture of what consumers want and expect from their financial institutions.

From the looks of things, banks are doing a moderately better job of meeting the needs of an increasingly demanding banking public.