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Not to worry, Northwest says

The chairman, president and CEO of Northwest Bancshares defended the bank’s transition of 18 First Niagara branches to Northwest over the weekend, calling it a “tremendous success.”

“It went as well as it possibly could have,” William J. Wagner said during a visit to Buffalo on Thursday.

“There are challenges, as always, when you do something, especially of that magnitude,” Wagner said. “But it went really well.”

Some Northwest customers had a sharply different view. They complained about debit cards that they either didn’t receive in the mail or couldn’t activate, trouble with accessing online accounts, wrong information on their new checks, and long waits on the bank’s help line.

Steven G. Fisher, Northwest’s chief revenue officer, said the bank didn’t want to minimize any problems that customers might have encountered. “We just want to work through those things as fast as we can and make sure they’re satisfied,” he said.

Fisher said 60 percent of the debits cards for new customers had been activated and used. “We have been authorizing transactions for debit card purchases since Sunday evening.” And 50 percent of the online banking users were “up and running,” he said. “They’re transferring money, they’re paying bills, they’re doing inquiries. What we get in the offices at times are the folks that might be struggling or might need a little bit of extra help to get that done.”

Northwest staffed up its customer help line for the transition, with 120 temporary employees. Even with the extra support, some customers said they had to wait as long as two hours to get help.

Fisher said the call center had serviced 10,000 customers as of Thursday. “We had a huge influx of calls that came in, obviously,” he said. “We certainly couldn’t project that. We staffed heavy.”

Not everyone calling had a problem to solve; some had questions they wanted answered, Fisher said. “But I can understand, two hours is a long time,” he said. The help line’s wait time was down to 4 minutes as of Thursday afternoon, he said.

Why were some customers not able to activate their debit cards?

Fisher said that if a telephone number connected to an account being transferred to Northwest was not correct – perhaps out of date, or a digit off – then customers were unable to activate the new card on their own. “The fix was relatively easy, but it can be a bit trying if you’re willing to sit on the phone for an hour or two, so we certainly understand that,” he said.

The bank made extensive efforts – by phone calls, emails and direct mail – to notify customers about the transition before the 18 branches started their conversion last Friday afternoon, said Shawn O. Walker, the bank’s chief marketing officer. Warren, Pa.-based Northwest picked up $1.74 billion in deposits through the deal. It added 145,000 deposit accounts and 26,000 loan accounts.

Some disgruntled customers were threatening to switch banks based on their experience, but Wagner said Northwest hasn’t seen that trend. “We haven’t noticed any account closings of any significance, other than normal.”

Wagner and other officials said they believe that Northwest handled the transition well overall. “We understand that people had some frustrations; that always happens with change,” he said. “But we think we’ve done a great job with the conversion and we appreciate our customers’ patience. And we’ll win their hearts, I guarantee it.”

“We certainly apologize,” Fisher said, referring to any customers who faced problems. “But we didn’t win J.D. Power (a customer satisfaction award) five out of seven years because we don’t take care of our customers. So we needed to get through this event and I think they’ll be very, very pleased going forward.”

Northwest added 180 employees who had worked for the First Niagara branches. “We’ve already hired 10 people in Buffalo that didn’t transfer” from the 18 branches, Wagner said. “And that will grow over time.”

Across Western New York, Northwest now has 329 employees, said John J. Golding, who was just named Northwest’s New York region president.

The bank expects to make an announcement in November about establishing a regional headquarters here, and will move an advisory board from Jamestown to the Buffalo area.

email: mglynn@buffnews.com

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