Credit unions remain highly popular with their members, again beating the commercial banking sector, according to a survey by the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI).

Scoring an 85 (on a 100-point scale), credit unions handily defeated commercial banks (76) in terms of customer satisfaction, thereby making credit unions the most people-friendly sector within the finance/insurance group for the seventh year in a row.

Indeed, of the 43 industries followed by ACSI, only television/DVD manufacturers scored a higher satisfaction rate (86) than credit unions in the survey.

Credit unions hold a commanding lead in terms of customer service over banks, partly due to the latter's high fee structures. The satisfaction score for banks have generally remained locked in the 70s range for the past two decades.

"A growing number of consumers are finding that the best way to avoid bank fees may be to avoid banks altogether," said Claes Fornell, ACSI chairman, in a statement. "Credit union membership growth broke records in 2014, and their customers are far more satisfied. The structure of credit unions means they can charge lower and fewer fees, but they still manage to provide superior service in nearly every area."

ACSI further stated that credit unions outperform banks in terms of "availability of products and services, ease of making account changes, interest rate competitiveness, understanding account information... courtesy and helpful staff."

Dan Berger, president/CEO of NAFCU, believes credit unions will "continue to outperform" banks with respect to customer service, due to the very nature of credit unions as a non-profit enterprise that seeks to take care of the needs of its members.

CUNA also praised the findings.

"The ACSI score demonstrates how credit unions are best in class in financial services," CUNA President/CEO Jim Nussle said in a statement. "Credit unions are steadfast in their dedication to member services, in large part because credit union members are credit union owners. Our not-for-profit structure allows us to serve our members rather than focus on maximizing profits for shareholders."

CUNA also indicated that members of credit unions have "higher expectations" of their credit union than customers of banks, that member loyalty is greater at credit unions, and that the rate of complaints lodged against credit unions is less than half of the comparable figure for banks.

However, customer satisfaction with credit unions may have peaked. Since 2008, the ACSI index for the industry has remained relatively stagnant, with scores ranging from 80 to 87. Thus, customers generally feel quite happy with their credit unions — but their satisfaction doesn't appear to be on an upward trajectory.

Marvin C. Umholtz, president & CEO of Umholtz Strategic Planning & Consulting Services in Olympia, Wash., suggests that for credit unions, which have achieved customer service accolades for years, the concept of "diminishing returns" may have kicked in, along with the emergence of an increasingly sophisticated and demanding public.

"Today's consumers, especially the Millennials, have very high expectations for their financial products and services," he told Credit Union Journal.

Umholtz suggested that in comparison with commercial banks and their troublesome fees, credit unions offer far better service — but a jaded public expects such good service anyway, rendering further increases in satisfaction difficult to achieve.

Dennis Dollar, principal partner of Dollar Associates, an Alabama-based consulting firm, commented that given the consistently high satisfaction numbers recorded for credit unions, it "frankly takes a somewhat cynical view for any critic to question why we're not in the 90s [scoring range]."

Credit union member satisfaction, he added, is the driving force behind credit union growth, has been for years and will continue as long as credit unions "keep their eyes on the ball of member service."

Indeed, it's hard to beat success — but are credit unions really "just that good" or do they look that good compared to the poorer services offered by many banks?

David VanAmburg, ACSI managing director, explained that it is more challenging to improve from a position of already-high satisfaction. "Banks and other industries have more room for improvement, more opportunities to 'delight' a customer base that is used to having lower expectations of service," he stated. "Credit unions already do such an outstanding job at satisfying customers that further improvements, while not impossible by any means, are certainly tougher to achieve, especially for industries that provide services rather than products."

VanAmburg posits that it is also possible for an industry to reach its "optimal level" of customer satisfaction — and for credit unions, this ceiling may be at the mid-to-high 80s range of ASCI scores.

Not only that, but the price for perfection could be very high. "There is a balancing act between providing outstanding experiences and cost," he added.

For credit unions to raise the level of customer satisfaction even higher it would probably require things like more investment in customer-facing technologies, more staffing, longer hours and more locations for member convenience, he said.

Berger of NAFCU suggested that credit unions could potentially boost their already-stellar customer service by investing more in technology, particularly mobile banking services, which members have asked for.

VanAmburg noted, however, that improvements come with a cost.

"[But] all of these things have costs associated with them that must be paid for, which then would likely lead to more revenue generators such as raising interest rates on loans, fees for checking, and other sorts of charges," VanAmburg said. "The end result can be a canceling out of higher customer perceptions of service with lower perceptions of the value proposition of the experience, leaving satisfaction overall flat at best."

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