Stiff competition in the credit card business is forcing issuers to hone their game.
Customers are reporting greater satisfaction with rewards programs, interest rates and customer service, according to a study released Thursday by J.D. Power & Associates.
The survey results come at a time when the card companies are actively working to keep customers satisfied and attract new business amidst a sluggish economy.
"The competitive environment is forcing the issuers to be more focused on their customers," says James Miller, senior director of banking services at J.D. Power.
Miller says issuers are particularly focused on "transactors" — the higher spenders who typically don't carry a balance.
"Part of the focus goes around serving them better, and when they have problems, making sure those are resolved and resolving them quicker," he says.
In fact, the industry for the first time is on par with retail banking when it comes to satisfaction. Customers were surveyed about their retail banks in the spring, and both surveys use a 1,000-point scale to measure customer perceptions.
The average customer satisfaction score across issuers was 753, up from 714 in 2010 and 731 in 2011 for the credit card industry.
"It's really surprising that the card industry has gotten on par with retail banking," Miller says. "Retail banking is more of a personal relationship, because a high percentage of customers go into a branch, and meet with employees. There was more focus on credit cards initially, and with the CARD Act, changes to the industry took place earlier."
"If we look back to late last year, with the whole issue over debit card fees, that's much more recent and memorable to consumers than credit card changes that are now two or more years old," Miller says.
But rivals weren't able to unseat American Express (AXP), which has taken the top spot for satisfaction all six years the survey has been done. The company scored 807 points this year.
"Amex is strong across all of our factors, so that makes it challenging. You can't just say, 'If I focus on this one area I'll be able to unseat American Express,' " Miller says. "It's hard to close the gap without American Express doing something that helps the competition."
But other issuers did see big jumps. JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and U.S. Bank (USB) each rose 27 points, to 762 and 748, for third and fifth place.
Chase and U.S. Bank "are taking more internal actions to be more customer-focused that that's showing up their scores," Miller says.
Meanwhile, Citigroup (NYSE: C) climbed 26 points, to 737.
"Problem resolution was really a big jump for [Citi], and it was much more improved than the rest of the industry," Miller says. "Across some other areas they were also improving at a faster rate," including on the disclosure and fairness of fees.
The card issuers, in aggregate, have also had continued success in convincing cardholders that they are focused on the customer, not dollar signs.
Miller says that on a seven-point scale — with 7 being the most customer-driven and 1 being the most profit-driven — respondents rated the issuers a 4.44 on average this year. That's up from 4.28 in 2010 and 4.31 in 2011.
"It's moving in the right direction," Miller says.
But he warns that with many customers now getting basic questions about their accounts answered online, the card companies will have to train phone representatives to handle the tough questions more adroitly.
"We're seeing that the volume of live calls is going down, but the live calls are becoming more of the complex transactions," he says. "We're taking out a lot of 'What's my balance, what day is my payment due,' and replacing that with more complex problems that they need to resolve or more questions coming up about the rewards program or the terms of their card."
"The skills they need in the call center on the phone are becoming more complex, so they need to balance that while at the same time continuing to invest in the online channel for people who want their questions answered there," Miller says.
The study, administered in June, is based on responses from almost 14,000 customers.