Because of merger-related setbacks, banks did not share in a general rise in customer satisfaction with service levels as measured in the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

The quality indicator rose last quarter for the first time in five years, according the American Society for Quality, Arthur Andersen, and the University of Michigan, which sponsor and perform the survey.

The overall index was 72.6, up from 70.8 a year earlier but still below the 74.5 of 1994.

Retailing was responsible for the upward trend. Gasoline stations, which are largely self-service, had the highest reading of any service category, at 79. The retail sector overall, at 74.7, was up year-to-year by 3.9 percentage points.

Finance and insurance as a whole slipped a tenth of a point, to 74.5. Commercial banks fell to 70, from 71, but were as high as 74 in 1994 and 1995. The index for insurance companies was flat at 77.

"Bank mergers have hurt customer satisfaction," said Jack West of the American Society for Quality. "One year ago the ACSI measured 10 major commercial banks," which have since consolidated to seven. "In only one case did a bank's customer satisfaction index rise, and that is because it acquired a bank that delivered higher satisfaction."

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