Wells Fargo & Co., recently plagued by service glitches and reported declines in customer satisfaction, is trying to turn over a new leaf.
Outside its California base, in states it entered through the operationally troubled 1996 acquisition of First Interstate Bancorp, Wells is promising to pay $5 to any customer who waits more than five minutes in a teller line.
It is a tactic that has been tried before, with mixed success.
Retail banking consultant Les Dinkin, managing principal of NBW Consulting Group in Westport, Conn., called it a "double-edged sword."
"On one side, customers expect consistent service. On the other side, they will ask, 'Why do we need a guarantee unless something is going to go wrong?'"
Wells is clearly hoping that the service guarantee will generate positive publicity. The bank has offered it in California since 1989 and is at least symbolically signaling that it wants to be consistent throughout its expanded territory and atone for any inconveniences it may have caused during the conversion period.
Chemical Banking Corp. tried a similar policy in the early 1990s in response to customer complaints about its New York-area branch services. It is no longer in effect.
Rockwell Clancy, executive vice president of the Bank Administration Institute in Chicago, said, "From a consumer standpoint, I'd rather not wait in line five minutes than wait in line 20 minutes and get paid five bucks. So, it will be important how they execute" the policy.
It "doesn't necessarily make sense for all banks," Mr. Dinkin said. But given the upheavals at San Francisco-based Wells Fargo, "it could help Wells win back some support in the marketplace."
Mr. Dinkin said the approach sends a strong signal to employees that their company is serious about improving its service.
The $5 guarantee in California, though long in effect, has not been publicized for several years, said Wells spokeswoman Kathleen Shilkret.
But after about a year of service problems stemming from the First Interstate deal, Wells is introducing the offer today in Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Washington.
An overwhelming majority of Wells' six million checking accounts are in California, Ms. Shilkret said. About 20% of the bank's 1,900 branches are elsewhere.
Ms. Shilkret said Wells is trying rectify problems that were most apparent outside California.
"We've gotten past our conversion problems and have been offering pretty fast service in our branches," she said. "This highlights that, gives a guarantee to the public, and holds us accountable."
Analyst R. Jay Tejera with Dain Bosworth Inc. in Minneapolis said Wells could use an image boost because its "customer service reputation has suffered."
Moreover, he said, it is a low-risk proposition. Most of the First Interstate customers' problems were electronic glitches, particularly with automated teller machines. As more customers have migrated toward ATMs and telephone services, the long teller lines have virtually disappeared, he said.
Though service delays have largely subsided, the negative perception persists, he said, "because no one likes to wait in line."
BankAmerica Corp.'s Seafirst Bank in Washington State has been offering a $5 payout since 1989. Sheri Pollock, a Seafirst spokeswoman, said it is part of a package of guarantees, including one that allows customers to speak to a banker 24 hours a day over the phone. The only cash guarantee is at the teller line, however.
Star Banc Corp. of Cincinnati, which last year offered a $5 guarantee, has extended the idea to many lines of business. For instance, if a residential mortgage is not closed by a promised date, Star will pay $250, said spokesman Steven Dale.
"It's a constant reminder" to salespeople, he said. "It has raised the level of awareness both internally and externally."
None of the banks would say how much they have doled out to slowly served customers.
When asked how much Wells expects to pay, Ms. Shilkret said, "We expect 95% of the customer base will be served in five minutes or less."