Why Customer Service Is Critical for This Bank

"People expect good service, but few are willing to give it." -- Robert Gateley

Few CEOs understand this better than Huntington Bancshares' (NASDAQ: HBAN  ) CEO Stephen Steinour. Recently speaking at an investment conference, the CEO made a number of comments about the importance of treating the customer right. With that in mind, I'd like to look into three of this CEO's best quotes and why he gives the bank an edge over regional competition -- like Regions Financial (NYSE: RF  ) and First Niagara Financial Group (NASDAQ: FNFG  ) .

"We've received a number of J.D. Power's awards... for both our innovative products and especially the high level of customer satisfaction."

In 2013, J.D. Power and Associates received feedback from nearly 52,000 retail banking customers in an effort to rank the largest banks in the United States by region in customer satisfaction. And as advertised, Huntington Bancshares' marks were off the chart. The bank won the award for highest customer satisfaction in the North Central Region -- the location of the majority of its branches.

When stacked against regional banks, First Niagara Financial Group and Regions Financial, Huntington Bancshares is head and shoulders above the competition. In the North Central region, Regions Financial received middle-of-the-road scores, except for "account activities," or how customers rated ease of transaction methods, in which the bank received five "circles" -- on a scale of zero to five, with five being the best. This was the only category in which Regions Financial matched Huntington Bancshares.

First Niagara Financial Group, similarly, fell short of Huntington Bancshares in the Mid-Atlantic region, only matching its three-circle score in "facility" -- ironically Huntington's worst mark -- which is a rating of the bank's hours, number of branches, and ease of access. Huntington Bancshares owned the North Central Region, and there is no reason it won't produce similar results in the Mid-Atlantic.

"We've built upon a deep community involvement that is the legacy of Huntington, but I think we've been able to move that to yet a higher pedestal."

In an age where customers may only go inside their bank a few times a year, community involvement becomes especially important for those attempting to expand their regional presence.

When it comes to community involvement, Huntington Bancshares seems to open its wallet for just about anyone in need within its footprint, such as affordable housing programs, Meals on Wheels, a workshop for nonprofit organizations, partnering with Big Lots and Meijer stores to donate backpacks for children in need, and a bevy of others.

First Niagara and Regions Financial are also involved in a number of community give-back programs. First Niagara Financial Group works with Regional Community Grants and Regional Community Sponsorships, mainly supporting youth and education, as well as community development . Regions Financial, similarly, has done much to improve its community's economic development, education, and arts & culture -- just to name a few.

There are no losers, only winners, when it comes to banks giving back to the community. And that's why I won't say which bank seems to be getting more out of its support for its respective community. I will say, however, that Huntington Bancshares has been supporting its community for a long time, and the community certainly seems to be returning the favor.

"As of last count, the employees now, or colleagues, are the seventh-largest owner of stock in the Company."

Good customer service has nothing to do with training, salary, or how good the coffee is. When employees hold a high stake in a company -- just like when a CEO holds a big stake -- it means they're invested in what they're doing. The best customer service comes when employees believe in their company's mission.

Upper-level management loves to talk about employees "buying in." To this investor, Huntington Bank sounds like a team, and you can't buy that type of loyalty.

Looking ahead
There are four reasons, ultimately, for a customer to stay with a bank long term: indifference, high switching costs, lower prices, and superior customer service. Of the four, in this investor's humble opinion, strong customer service tops them all. It's one of the main reasons (even with the emergence of Internet banks and lower prices), Huntington Bancshares is a strong play moving forward.

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