Will Bank of America Customers Defect?

NEW YORK (MainStreet) – The nation’s largest banks have been slowly piling on the checking account fees ever since the Durbin Amendment to the Dodd-Frank Act capped debit card swipe fees and the profits that banks get from them. And while consumer outrage at the death of free checking has been largely muted, Bank of America (Stock Quote: BAC) may have become the first major bank to set off a customer rebellion.

The bank announced last week that it will charge a $5 monthly fee to checking customers who use their debit card to make a purchase, and customers are not happy, to say the least. In a poll conducted by TheStreet, a whopping 83% of readers said they planned to leave the bank in response to the new fees.

While it seems unlikely that Bank of America will actually lose 83% of its checking account customers, the number doesn’t bode well. After all, in the wake of Netflix’s price hike and subsequent service split, a similar poll of TheStreet readers found 54% promising to quit the service altogether and another 37% saying they would subscribe to only one of the two services going forward. Indeed, Netflix said last month that it expects to have a million fewer subscribers in the third quarter of this year than it had previously predicted, a sure sign that subscribers are already quitting in droves.

So can we expect Bank of America customers to do the same?

“I think disenfranchised consumers that are annoyed are going to find a way to leave,” says Madeline K. Aufseeser, senior analyst for the Aite Group, a financial services research firm.

The question, then, is how many customers will be annoyed enough to actually jump ship. Kit Yarrow, a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University who specializes in consumer psychology, says that Bank of America can’t rely on any kind of customer loyalty to keep even long-time customers on board.

“There’s already less of a sense of loyalty to any company unless they’re truly amazing at customer service,” she says, citing the increasing ease by which consumers can research alternative businesses online. “And banks have even less ability to influence loyalty.”


Despite this, it’s likely that more practical concerns will keep many angry customers from defecting. After all, other large banks like Wells Fargo (Stock Quote: WFC), have already started experimenting with similar fees, meaning that customers may not necessarily find a safe haven elsewhere. And while smaller community banks and credit unions are unlikely to implement similar fees, Aufseeser says that customers may balk at the fact that these smaller institutions don’t always offer the full range of services you’d find at a major national banks, such as online banking and a national ATM network.

“Do credit unions offer some of these online tools? Yes. Do they give you access to ATM networks? Yes,” she says. “Is it as easy to get access to these kinds of services? No.”

But perhaps the biggest reason that customers may stick with Bank of America is the simple fact that once you join a bank, it’s a pain to leave. Aufseeser says that the average checking account relationship with a bank lasts about five to seven years, which she attributes largely to the large amount of work required to switch to a new bank.

“You have to re-establish direct deposit, order new checks, and if you use online bill pay, you have to re-enter all those accounts online,” she says. “There’s a number of steps.”

Yarrow, herself a Bank of America customer, says that this complicated process means that she and other customers will be more inclined to adjust their spending behavior than to actually quit.

“It’s such a hassle – the time, mental energy required to change banks may be a greater cost to consumers than what they’ll lose on fees,” she says. “Loyalty implies emotional devotion, but the loyalty we see in banks is really just inertia.”

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