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Transition to Northwest Bank stirs complaints from customers

Northwest Bank scrambled Monday to cope with a wave of customer complaints stemming from its acquisition of 95,000 First Niagara Bank customer accounts.

Newly acquired customers flooded the bank’s customer help line and descended on branches, complaining about problems such as debit cards that couldn’t be used or weren’t delivered, and online accounts that they couldn’t access.

Eighteen former First Niagara branches reopened as Northwest branches Monday morning. But customers reported problems that began over the weekend, after First Niagara debit cards were deactivated to switch the accounts to Northwest.

Erin Thompson, of North Tonawanda, activated her new Northwest debit card Friday afternoon, after her First Niagara card had expired. But when she tried to pick up a prescription for her husband at a Rite Aid drugstore, the new card was declined. She then tried to withdraw money from a Northwest ATM with the card, but couldn’t.

“I had to use credit cards, which I hated doing,” Thompson said. On Monday morning, she was able to access her online account, but discovered a series of small $2 and $2.50 holds on her card. She tried to talk to someone on a customer service line, without success. “Trying to get through to them is a nightmare. You’re on hold for over an hour.” Some customers reported even longer waits on the phone.

Thompson said she doubted she would stay with Northwest: “My husband gets direct deposit (checks), and I can’t take a chance that that screws up somehow and we don’t have access to that money, because that’s how we pay our bills.”

Thompson recalled receiving letters from Northwest about how the bank was “trying to make a smooth transition. Well, it definitely was not smooth for us.”

Pennsylvania-based Northwest is not new to the Buffalo Niagara market – it already had eight branches here – but acquiring the 18 branches significantly enhanced its local presence. The bank is expected to move up to No. 4 in deposit market share here, from No. 7 previously, based on Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data.

Customers interviewed outside a newly rebranded Northwest branch at Lafayette Square in downtown Buffalo shook their heads over problems that they had run into, as well as a lack of fast solutions.

George Kallas, of Clarence, was unable to log on to his online commercial and personal accounts. He didn’t want to get switched to a new bank in the first place. “I didn’t want to go through it again,” Kallas said. “It was a nightmare going from HSBC to First Niagara.”

Dustin Ghezaili, of Buffalo, dropped by on his lunch hour to try to get his Northwest issues resolved. He couldn’t access his online account, and his debit card wasn’t functioning. The wait time on the phone was far too long, and he was frustrated by the line at the branch, too. Then he looked down at his hand: “They gave me a T-shirt.” Ghezaili added, “I’m coming back tomorrow and closing my account. It’s been a (lousy) experience.”

Northwest had announced that its online service would not be available to the new customers until 8 a.m. Monday. Even so, this meant that customers had to go without online banking access through the weekend.

Kyla Winters, of Buffalo, had just closed her account at the branch, but not out of specific gripes about Northwest. She was just tired of having her account switched from one bank to another. “I don’t like all the mergers,” she said.

Robin Schmieder ran into problems with her debit card over the weekend, as well as delays in getting answers from customer service online. The branch near where she works in Amherst was converted to Northwest, and she expects to keep an account there.

Schmieder, an Attica resident, noted that a friend of hers banks with Northwest and loved it, and urged Schmieder to give Northwest a chance. “But I believe a company shows their colors with their first impression,” she said, “and mine was not great.”

Melanie Clabaugh, a Northwest spokeswoman, said that as of Monday afternoon, the bank’s online accounts were up to date, its debit cards were functioning, and wait times on the help line were reduced from the morning.

Clabaugh acknowledged that the bank had received complaints about debit cards that weren’t working at retailers. “I think that was early in the weekend, and all of those issues have been resolved,” she said.

As for the online accounts being unavailable over the weekend, she said: “We had to take that time to take those 95,000 accounts from First Niagara and convert them to the Northwest system. Online banking wasn’t available because the account information wasn’t in our system until sometime late in the weekend or Monday morning.”

Northwest staffed up its customer help line Monday, including with support from a third-party vendor to help with online banking-specific questions. “We’ll be using that extended call center staff for the next six weeks,” she said. “We really appreciate everyone’s patience, and we want them to know (customers) are our first priority.”

Did Northwest feel the transition went as well as it should have?

“I think any time you have a conversion of this size, I think you’re going to run into situations you try to prepare for,” Clabaugh said. “… Any issues that come up, we’re fixing as quickly as possible.”

email: mglynn@buffnews.com

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