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Customers sound off on First Niagara switch snags

A day after First Niagara Financial Group executives touted what they called a smooth conversion of HSBC Bank USA branches, customers were reporting some problems with online banking, overwhelmed staff, missing debt cards or checks, and account mix-ups.

Two days into the blockbuster acquisition and merger integration, branch parking lots were full, teller lines were long, phones were jammed, and wait times were often extended.

Customers reported a range of issues, though there weren't any major trends or consistencies to indicate significant trouble, aside from dissatisfaction with their experience and disagreement with the bank's overwhelmingly positive assertions.

"They told everybody that everything would be ready to go yesterday, and it wasn't," Gene Grabiner of North Buffalo said Tuesday. "I'm really fed up. My experience was terrible."

Still, the experiences were very mixed, and there were no complaints of money being lost. Interviews with customers at several branches found some customers complaining of minor frustration -- which was often resolved -- while others praised both banks' personnel and cited no problems.

"They got me out of there quick," said Timothy Carter, 57, of Buffalo. "They're very efficient, explained everything to me, and I'm satisfied."

Mark Rendulic, executive vice president of retail banking at First Niagara, acknowledged the long telephone delays, which he termed "unacceptable." He said the volume of calls Monday exceeded even the bank's expectations, leading to wait times of more than 15 minutes.

In response, the bank brought in more staff and teamed up with some of its vendors to transfer specialized calls to them. It also extended hours Tuesday, taking the first calls at 6 a.m. and staying open until 11 p.m. And call volume fell sharply, so wait times fell by half Tuesday, to 7 to 10 minutes.

Even so, he said the bank still considers the conversion a success, noting that all accounts transferred and the systems are running normally. Online banking was down for a couple of hours Monday, but that was due to a larger and unrelated problem with the vendor.

"Every customer that has any issue, we want to talk to that customer, and we're working real hard to make that easier for the customer, and we'll continue to do that," he said.

Buffalo-based First Niagara on Friday completed its purchase of 195 HSBC branches across upstate New York and southeastern Connecticut. Over the weekend, the bank converted about 100 of them that it will keep, along with 500,000 customers, and reopened those offices Monday morning as First Niagara branches, on that bank's computer systems.

The bank spent months preparing for the conversion, to ensure that it would be easy for customers. Monday, executives touted it as a success, but that's not what some customers said.

"It's not as smooth as they would say, but it hasn't been a major problem," said Matthew Blinkoff, 30, of Buffalo.

Customers spoke of branch staff being unable to answer questions or even find their accounts in the computer system, referring them instead to the telephone call center or to other branches before the accounts were located. People also had difficulty logging in online.

"It's helter-skelter in there, man. No one knows what they're doing," said Pete Ragnar, 28, of Grand Island. "Everything's legit. All my money's there. It's just a little confused inside with the new system."

"There's a lot of confusion about where accounts are," said Donna Jackson, 49, of Blasdell, who closed her account after branch staff finally found it after three attempts.

A few business customers experienced problems with electronic payments because they never received a "starter" or "welcome" packet from the bank with checks, deposit slips and routing numbers to give payroll or credit card processors.

One woman's HSBC savings account was coded as a checking account in the switch-over, so her debit card was initially rejected until she called the bank to get it straightened out.

Grabiner, 69, has a monthly electronic debit of $94 to Erie Community College to pay for dental insurance. The retired professor, who had been a customer of HSBC or predecessor Marine Midland Bank since 1977, said he discovered the payment was scheduled twice, once using HSBC's routing number and once using First Niagara's.

He spent 40 minutes waiting on the phone before going to a branch and waiting until a staff member could solve the problem. "This has been a very unsatisfying experience," he said.

Others were lenient. "They're doing their level best," said Liz Kolken, who owns the Quaker Bonnet restaurant. "There have probably been a lot of glitches, but everybody's been so very civil in trying to make it all work smoothly that I think we'll all survive. People get neurotic about their money."