Despite the onerous burden of the Countrywide acquisition, I have felt for some time that Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) has been held back, to a large degree, by its own inability to deal effectively with bank customers. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised to see that CEO Brian Moynihan is finally addressing this very problem, beginning with a letter to employees outlining the emphasis he is putting on this new customer-friendly approach.
Finally, an attempt to mend fences with consumers
As both fans and detractors of Bank of America well know, customer relations is not the bank's strong point. Quite consistently, B of A ranks last in any given survey on the subject, showing little or no improvement from one year to the next. On a recent American Customer Satisfaction Index survey, the bank scored the lowest among big banks such as JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) and Citigroup (NYSE:C), particularly on the issue of fees. Consumers still haven't forgiven the big guy for that aborted $5 monthly debit card fee, it seems.
As B of A looks to new streams of revenue in order to build itself up again -- in the eyes of both investors and regulators -- Moynihan has been up-front about the bank's need to jump back into the mortgage business. This plan has been complicated by two big problems: the black hole filled with toxic Countrywide loans, and B of A's lack of finesse when dealing with borrowers.
Despite the bank's progress in customer services offered at branch locations, B of A can't seem to apply the same principles to mortgage writing. Interestingly, another big bank that could use some mortgage-lending mojo is Citi, which is not very far above Bank of America on the mortgage origination satisfaction survey. Notably, banks that did quite a lot better in the rankings, such as JPMorgan, have not surprisingly been reaping the rewards of renewed mortgage activity.
B of A has been considering this issue for some time, it seems. The bank began looking around for a new public relations agency last year and is currently switching from Omnicom's Emanate unit to one at Burson-Marsteller, a subsidiary of London-based WPP PLC. The PR company is charged with polishing the bank's image, both on Main Street and Wall Street.
One Fool's take
While Moynihan is obviously serious about this initiative, it will take much time and effort to turn the bank's reputation around. After all, decisions like imposing unpopular fees or putting up roadblocks to communications between the bank and borrowers are not made at the lower echelons of the Bank of America chain of command, but are more likely etched into the bank's management culture.
However, the campaign for better service will begin in earnest within days, according to the letter. Moynihan has finally digested the fact that better ACSI scores mean higher profits, and this is one project that should cost little to implement, while garnering great returns -- for both the bank and its investors.