When Bank of America totaled its customer service satisfaction scores last year, South Florida finished first among the 10 regions in its national system.
That marked the second straight year South Florida earned that honor within the bank whose branch network is the country's largest.
One reason for that showing is that Bank of America has used South Florida to test a branch setup that is generating good reviews from customers, said James Jackson, the bank's executive VP for retail banking in South Florida.
That system is built around mobile branch managers who help speed up service to customers by directing them to the right part of the bank.
This year, Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America (NYSE: BAC) is taking that format to all 5,800 branches in its 30-state network.
Bank of America hopes the setup will help accelerate its recent trend of adding new customers and more accounts per customer at what analysts consider impressive paces.
Bank of America early this year had 229 branches in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. That puts it in a dead heat for first place in the tri-county area with Charlotte-based Wachovia (NYSE: WB), which had 230 branches on June 30.
As of that same date, Bank of America was first in tri-county deposits with $23.8 billion, followed by Wachovia's $20.7 billion.
In the late 1990s, Bank of America "got a jump on the other large banks" in putting more focus on programs for customer retention, said Anthony Polini, an analyst at FTN Midwest Research in New York.
That includes training employees in cross-selling products and being among the first to redesign branches to have open space in the center and conference rooms on the side.
Bank of America began with an advantage of having "many of the most attractive sites in South Florida," said Ken Thomas, president of BranchLocation.com of Miami, which advises banks on choosing sites.
Bank of America tested several systems in which a banker was posted at or near the front door.
Results showed that having a manager or assistant manager as first point of contact, rather than a lower-level employee, was best at keeping traffic flowing and satisfying customers, Jackson said.
In that setup, which Bank of America calls "leading from the lobby," the manager or assistant answers questions and directs customers to the teller line, investment advisor area or other parts of the branch.
The senior banker carries a combination clipboard/folder, with deposit slips and other documents that customers can use for fast service.
Bank of America won't disclose its exact South Florida customer service scores. But Jackson said last year's surveys included an increase in the number of nines and 10s, on a scale with 10 as the highest possible score.
In phone interviews each quarter, the bank asks customers to grade it on atmosphere at branches, time spent in teller lines and employees' friendliness and knowledge.
Nationally last year, the bank's rating fell from 74 to 72 on a scale of 100, in the University of Michigan School of Business' American Customer Satisfaction Index.
That score slipped during the year Bank of America bought FleetBoston Corp., which was New England's largest bank, but had just three South Florida branches.
Major banks have traditionally declined in the Michigan survey when they are in the midst of mergers. (See story, page 4)
Bank of America defines South Florida as an 11-county market, including Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, the Tampa Bay area and counties in between.
The bank last year had a 52 percent net increase in checking accounts, savings accounts, mortgages, consumer loans, debit cards and credit cards in that market, Jackson said.
Bank of America would not disclose the number of accounts it added in that same-store sales comparison, but Jackson said the continued strong level of satisfied customers is helping it gain and retain accounts and other products.
E-MAIL BANKING, finance and insurance writer Jim Freer at email@example.com.
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