Top service wins a smile

A consumer-satisfaction survey reveals that small providers outscore the big boys.

A consumer-satisfaction survey reveals that small providers outscore the big boys.

PHONE calls answered on the first ring. A friendly, real-life person on the other end. Efficient service thereafter.

No, it's not some unattainable customer utopia, it's here, in Australia, today. Or the respondents to our annual SMILES survey - which stands for the Smart Investor League of Exceptional Service - say it is at 12 companies.

One of the 1400 Aussies who voted for their favourite providers of everything from savings accounts and insurance to mobile phones and utilities even said: "I feel they care about me."

Another enthused: "They truly deliver on their motto: happy banking."

They were both talking about BankWest, which scooped the pool in our survey this year.

Emanating from Western Australia and now owned by banking behemoth the Commonwealth Bank, the smaller regional player has preserved its own identity and apparently delivered on a three-year campaign to improve customer service.

It came top of the home lender and day-to-day banking categories, dethroning people's champion Bendigo Bank after four years at the top, to be named Australia's favourite provider (with a 72 per cent satisfaction rating).

It's also worth noting BankWest is Smart Investor's reigning Blue Ribbon Awards' Bank of the Year.

So what can you expect at BankWest that's better than the rest? Respondents said old-fashioned good manners, fast resolutions, competitive interest rates, conveniences such as "express" stores that are open longer hours and mobile banking iPhone and Android apps.

Meanwhile, the big boys are nowhere to be found. Of a potential four banking categories, not one of our largest institutions comes top. Westpac Online Investing was voted best online broker, though.

In other categories, many household names take a beating, too. Smaller companies, for example, polled highest for best internet provider (Internode) and best utilities provider (Integral Energy, which services Queensland and NSW).

In fact, it appears a lot of companies are scrimping on customer service as the economic downturn and cost-cutting bite. Across all categories, people are less satisfied on average with the service they receive than they were 12 months ago.

In a sign of the times, the biggest drops in overall ratings were for superannuation funds, down 8 per cent, and fund managers, down 7 per cent. Performance plays a big part in the perception of value for money and many funds sustained big losses in the global financial crisis and its ongoing ructions.

AustralianSuper, one of the country's largest funds with $42 billion of our money, topped the super category with a rating of 66 per cent versus the 63 per cent average.

Communication with members as to why balances have fallen is key but so too is the fact that the fund has responded to market turmoil by freezing administration fees.

Getting back to those providers that disappointed, mobile phone companies were docked 5 per cent in just a year (to 65 per cent).

Not many Vodafone customers are "smiling". But we are also 5 per cent less satisfied with our life insurers, taking the score down to 66 per cent, probably because we resent the premiums when times are tight and we've made no claims.

What's interesting is that despite controversy over non-payments for properties damaged in this year's floods, satisfaction with general insurers fell by only 3 per cent to stand well above life insurers at 72 per cent.

Health insurance, a purchase we are both enticed and induced to make by the government, polls on average just below at 70 per cent and has fallen only slightly in the year.

So what irks us most? Automated voice systems, waiting more than 10 minutes to be served, inefficient service, lack of communication, rudeness.

It's all very annoying but unless enough of us vote with our feet, it won't improve.

Good service is out there. You just have to switch to it.

Follow this writer on Twitter @NicolePedMcK

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