Next to credit card terms, customer satisfaction is the most important factor in issuers' ability to retain customers, a survey has found.

Card acceptance, followed by value/utility, then comfort/security are the next most important cardholder benefits, according to the survey commissioned by MasterCard International.

"The most surprising thing was how important customer satisfaction was to the cardholders," said Helene Graft, MasterCard's vice president of customer satisfaction and service.

Some 1,600 holders of MasterCard, Visa, American Express, and Discover were contacted by phone or in person during the fourth quarter of 1993.

The survey found that 87% of cardholders who contacted a customer service department within the past six months were satisfied with the service. But a majority of the 11% of cardholders who were not satisfied said they either canceled their card or used it less often.

A number of those unhappy customers call on Bankcard Holders of America, the Herndon, Va.-based consumer group. The key complaint, said Ruth Susswein, director, is cardholders' not getting answers to their questions, or getting two different responses.

The phone call a consumer makes "may be the only opportunity in years that the business has to directly deal with the customer," Ms. Susswein said. "If they blow it, they jeopardize their business."

Part of the problem, explained Kenneth R. Keck, executive vice president of Harris Bank Card in Buffalo Grove, Ill., is that the rules governing charge-backs are complicated. "Frequently, the customer doesn't understand this," he said. "They expect you to just solve the problem."

The subsidiary of Harris Trust and Savings Bank, like most issuers, operates a customer service line 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The bank loses only 1% of the calls to customer service, he said, below the industry benchmark of 2% or less.

"I think the credit card industry is further along than anybody else I can think of in quick response," Mr. Keck said.

Regardless of the response, the survey found that consumers are confused about who is responsible for the cardholder's overall experience. Between 50% to 70% of cardholders surveyed said they hold the associations, MasterCard and Visa, responsible for service activities performed by the issuers.

Ms. Graft, of MasterCard, compares this to a consumer's experience at a McDonald's restaurant or at a Wal-Mart outlet. "MasterCard must work with members to protect the image and value of the brand," she said.

With consumer expectations rising, she added, "improved customer satisfaction is really a way to differentiate card issuers and card brands."

MasterCard qualifies customer satisfaction at the point of sale, on receipt of the billing statement and interaction with customer service representatives.

To help issuers improve satisfaction in these areas, and therefore, retain customers, the New York-based association conducts a semiannual MasterCard University course, sends out a newsletter, publishes a reference guide for MasterCard customer service representatives, and provides members with a benchmarking study to help them evaluate their own call center effectiveness.

In the survey, cardholders ranked 33 attributes when determining customer satisfaction from their credit card. The top five included: keeping credit card information confidential, having clear and accurate statements, notifying cardholders when the card is fraudulently used, removing disputed items immediately from the bill, and having the card accepted wherever the cardholder wants to use it.

"A lot of businesses are ready to put money into capital, or into technology, but not into people," Ms. Susswein said. In the end, she added, an investment in customer service is less expensive than hunting for new customers.

"If customers are leaving us because they're dissatisfied with customer service," said Darrell G. Rickman, vice president and general manager of Old Kent Card Services in Grand Rapids, Mich., "that's within our control to fix."

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