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A funny thing happened on the way to the recession. While the nation’s financial sector crumbled, consumer satisfaction with online financial services was reaching a new high.That’s according to the 2009 online financial services study released by ForeSee Results and Forbes.com.The fifth of such studies since 2003, the report said that credit unions as whole are viewed more favorably than banks and that online members of credit unions “are substantially more satisfied than online customers of large national banks and smaller regional banks, which are tied in customer satisfaction.”The report-which studied consumer satisfaction among online users of banks and credit unions, investment services and credit card companies-also found that online investors are twice as likely as online bankers to use mobile devices to access those Web sites, and it stressed the importance of the online channel to economic recovery.Financial institutions also “have not yet figured out mobile apps,” the report said. “Mobile apps have relatively low penetration among online banking customers. However, the small pool of survey respondents who use them appear to be more satisfied with their online banking Web sites, more likely to use bill payment services online, purchase more services, use the Web site as a primary channel and recommend the banking Web site.”ForeSee Results said the survey was conducted among nearly 2,500 respondents between March 3 and March 18. They included subscribers to Forbes.com and online panelists from FGI Research, all screened to ensure they were users of online financial services through banks, credit unions, investment services or credit card companies.The results were analyzed using the University of Michigan’s American Consumer Satisfaction Index, described by Ann Arbor-based ForeSee Results as the only “uniform, national, cross-industry measure of satisfaction with the quality of goods and services available in the United States.”The research and advisory company said credit unions and banks improved one point in this year’s survey, moving to 83 on the ACSI’s 100-point scale. Very few service industries ever break 80, the company said, noting that credit card Web sites increased by seven points to 80, while investment Web sites improved four points to 78.The results continue a steady trend of increased satisfaction with online banking since 2003, the company said, a result of wider consumer acceptance and improving online experience. That has continued despite a drop in consumer confidence reflected in the 30% of the respondents who said they are less confident in their financial institution’s stability this year than last.“It’s not an easy environment for financial institutions to do business. Given all the problems that these companies are having, we might expect [online banking] satisfaction to slip,” said Larry Freed, president/CEO of ForeSee Results.“But the basic block and tackling that these companies are doing online is proving to be effective. They don’t need to reinvent the wheel or their Web site strategy just because the economy is in crisis,” Freed said.“Focusing on the right fundamentals makes a big difference to the consumer experience over time,” he said. “And it turns out that online satisfaction actually has huge implications for the whole industry.”That’s because Web sites have a “fairly large impact on multichannel operations and future financial success,” Freed said in his report. “Satisfied online customers are more profitable, more loyal and more likely to engage in positive word of mouth.”The report said that 61% of the respondents said they use a large bank, 20% said they are customers of a community bank and 16% said they are credit union members. The overall score for credit unions was 86, compared with 82 for the small and large banks.Banks have trailed credit unions since the study began, the report said, adding that “credit unions outperform both large and community banks in most elements driving online satisfaction,” including superior site performance and online tasks and transactions.“Dominance in these areas is an impressive feat, given budgets and resources that are likely to be more limited at a credit union,” Freed said in the report. “Credit union members are also more comfortable with the privacy of the online banking experience.”However, the report said, credit unions may be “benefiting slightly from lower expectations” than consumers might hold of the largest banks, and their “customers” are members who “may feel more of an affinity for their organization.”Credit union members also may be more likely to use the online channel, simply because credit unions often have fewer branches, ForeSee Results said, and they enjoy stronger word-of-mouth support from members than banks do from customers.Bottom line for credit unions in the ForeSee report?“This research points to opportunities for every category of financial institution measured,” the report said, adding that “credit unions are obviously well-positioned to publicize and capitalize on their superior online customer satisfaction as a means for customer acquisition.”While credit unions are faring better than their competition as a whole in the loss of confidence that’s been blown up by this economic storm, they are not immune from the perception that they are not necessarily as safe as stuffing greenbacks in a mattress. And, the ForeSee Results report said, they should do more to promote their relative safety.“Roughly one-third of online banking customers and online investors are less confident in the stability of their bank, credit union or investment firm this year,” the report said. “Only one in five online banking customers and one in three online investors remember seeing any communication or reassurance about their institution’s financial stability on the Web site, which is a shockingly small proportion, given the economic turmoil.”While loss of reputation is often bandied about as a reason to ensure consumer security and satisfaction with the online channel, it’s about more than window-dressing, Freed said.“Financial services companies should care about customer satisfaction for more than just public image,” his report said. “Improving the online experience leads to increased revenue because customers purchase additional services and recommend their friends and colleagues do the same, as well as cost savings because these customers use the Web site as their first source for information and transactions rather than the more costly alternative channels.”And how to improve that online experience?“In summary, although priorities for each individual bank or credit union will differ,” the report said, “the industry-level data suggest that improvements to Web site functionality and site performance have the greatest return on investment, followed closely by improvements to online transactions.”“Enhancements to online content, bill payment functionality and privacy are less likely to have a huge impact on customer loyalty and profitability.”–[email protected]

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