Arthur D. Little Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., has included four major credit card organizations among its 20 "best of the best" in customer management practices.

They are: American Express Co., Citicorp's Citibank, MBNA America Bank, and United Services Automobile Association.

All are among the biggest credit and charge card issuers. USAA, a mutual insurance company that stresses customer service by mail and telephone, offers cards through USAA Federal Savings Bank.

An indicator of customer management success, as assessed by an Arthur D. Little panel of experts, is customer retention.

Indeed, customer retention has been championed by another firm, Bain & Co., which has cited MBNA as a prime example of how long-term relationships produce superior profitability and reduce account-acquisition costs.

The "best of the best" excel in six business processes: customer management, process management, manufacturing management, product and technology management, supply chain management, and environmental management.

The leaders "have placed customer needs central to their business strategy, developed a cross-functional approach to customer management that extends from the boardroom to the front lines, and leveraged feedback as the foundation for continuous improvement," said Arthur D. Little director Marc Rubin.

"These initiatives have helped to expand their customer bases and maintain long-term customer loyalty."

Also on the "best" list are: British Airways, Federal Express, Fidelity Investments, Four Seasons Hotels, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, Home Depot, Intuit, L.L Bean, Land's End, MCI, ServiceMaster, Staples, Taco Bell, Toyota Motor Sales, and Whirlpool.

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